Describing Emotions in Fiction


Note for readers: This post is a reprint (with a few updates and edits) of a blog post I did for the web site Tuna for Bernadette in 2013. Despite the piece’s advanced age (ten years is like a hundred in blog years), I feel it holds up, and the approach it details is one I still use.

In 1994, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio published Descartes’ Error — Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. The book was a conversational rumination on neuroscience; at its core was Damasio’s assertion that human emotion is a sensory experience. It is felt in the skin and viscera, transmitted along the nerves that travel through the body and observed in various components of the brain. This might not sound like a revelation but Damasio was essentially discarding the belief — held throughout much of human history — that emotions are felt in some ethereal way by a nonmaterial human essence (what might be called a soul). Damasio’s position is at odds with most religious thought and many romantic notions (including Descartes’ famous dictum that the mind and body were separate) which have pervaded literature and philosophy for the past 200-300 years.

A reasonable question at this point is, “What does this have to do with novel writing?” After all, this is a blog dedicated to the art of creating fiction, not understanding the physiological processes that comprise human emotion. This is true enough, but describing emotion is a big part of fiction writing. Characters have emotional states, and often quite a bit of conflict is driven by these states. Ideally, an author doesn’t want to just describe the emotional state of a character, he or she wants the reader to feel (at least in some small way) these emotions. And readers want to vicariously experience what a character experiences. That’s part of the thrill of reading a book.

One way a writer can clarify a character’s emotional state is to just lay it out. “Jan became angry.” And that gets the job done well enough (provided the reader understands what anger is, and some will understand it better than others.) But I suggest that by providing some description of the physiological changes that occur when a character is experiencing a certain emotion, an author can write text that helps the reader really “feel” the emotion.

Now, am I saying that every time an author describes a character experiencing an emotion he or she should offer up a litany of physiological changes of the body, written in technical, medical jargon? Of course not. But some delicate application of these ideas, combined with good writing sense, can create more exciting prose.

The question then arises, “how does one become familiar with the physiological changes that are part of emotion?” The long answer involves a lot of reading; there are numerous books and online articles that get into this topic. Certainly Descartes’ Error is a good, albeit dense, read on the subject. A little more approachable is The Emotional Brain by Jospeh LeDoux. For a look at one of the staple emotions of suspense writing, fear, I strongly recommend Fear Itself by Rush W. Dozier.

But there’s a short answer as well. After all, we’re all human beings (I presume) — shouldn’t we be able to observe our own emotional states? At times, it’s harder than you think, because certain emotional states include changes that can impede observation (by affecting our speed of thought for example.) Nonetheless, by simply paying attention to your own body when you are experiencing emotions, you can come up with a lot of descriptive ammunition for writing. But what to pay attention to? Here are some suggestions.

The Face
Obviously, we often wear our emotions on our face. Merely describing a character’s sense of their own expression can provide detail about their emotion. (“John’s jaw clenched in anger,” “Upon hearing the good news, Tom’s face relaxed,” etc.) But we also experience emotion in our face in other ways. Embarrassment and anger often cause blood to rush to our heads, making us appear red-faced and feel a warmth on our skin (e.g. “hotheaded.”) And let’s not forget the appropriately named tension headache.

[Side note added in 2024. I’m reminded of psychologist Paul Ekman’s analysis of the look of rage that flashed across the face of Kato Kaelin, witness in the O.J. Simpson trial. The expression came and went so quickly it was only visible by slowing down a videotape of Kaelin’s testimony. Details about this are found around the seventh paragraph of this piece.]

The Viscera
Gastrointestinal issues in the abdominal organs are well known indicators of stress, tension and repulsion. (“Upon seeing the ghostly visage of her dead mother-in-law, Jan’s stomach gurgled.”) Few words can better convey simmering anxiety than some descriptive prose describing a character’s churning or tight guts.

Moving upward in the body we find a few more organs that can be indicative of person’s emotional state. Some individuals will feel their lungs tighten during stress, even to such a degree that they pass out from lack of oxygen. (I recall being locked in a car trunk as a teenager — on a dare — and struggling for air.) And the heart is the organ most famously imbued in literature with an emotional character. In times of calm it beats with a steady, relaxed tempo. In times of stress it pounds on the walls of the chest with a frantic cadence.

The Muscles
Tense muscles are almost synonymous with a tense emotional state. But I find that muscles can pass on information about other emotions as well. When I’m startled, I can feel a cascade of “tinglies” run down my chest or back muscles. When melancholy or anxious, I often find that muscles in my torso and arms have a dull ache to them, almost like the onset of a flu. On the flipside, extreme excitement can activate a body’s fight or flight reaction, pumping muscles full of pain killing endorphins.

The Brain
The brain, of course, doesn’t feel anything literally; it has no sensory nerves. But the speed of your mental processing is a component of emotional state. When tired, uninspired or even just comfortable, our thinking seems slow or dulled. When stressed or excited, our brain sharpens and we become aware of the details of our surroundings. (Of course, too much stress can lead to a sense of “detail overload” and an inability to focus.) Nailing down a character’s mental and cognitive state on the page can do a lot to place a reader in the moment.

[Side note added in 2024. I just came across a great passage in the crime novel “The Silent Girls” by Eric Rickstad that captures a character’s brain activity. It read: “Her synapses snapped and sizzled, a string of lit firecrackers.”]

Keep in mind that what the person isn’t feeling is also a good indicator of their emotional state. Noting that a character hanging by a thread over a pool of man-eating alligators hasn’t even broken a sweat tells the reader quite a bit about that person’s disposition.

None of this is inventing the wheel, of course. Descriptions of the physiological aspects of emotion have been around since fiction began. But I advocate greater awareness and study of these sensory changes, in the belief that doing so will lead to better, more immersive and more realistic writing.

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