How to Describe Your Character's Emotions (Free Download)
Describing your character's emotions can be hard to do on the page, but we've unearthed a handy infographic to help you use more descriptive words and dive deeper into your character's emotional state.
Writing is hard work. It's the foundation of the entertainment we consume. Along with that foundation comes the need to express a severe and profound character wants and desires. But how can you show how a character thinks or feels? We try to do that in the scene description and action, but it doesn't always come across.
Today we're going to go over some ways to spice up your character's emotions by varying word choice so you can capture exactly what's being felt in each moment.
What is your character feeling?
I think my last spec had people "angrily walk away" in 50% of the scenes and "storm off" in the others. But writing is much more than that and even more than using a thesaurus. We're trying to create relatable characters that feel on a spectrum that makes them pop off the page and feel realistic.
I often find it hard to diversify my language. When the writing is flowing, it's easier to just lean on the tried and true descriptors. But as you know, all writing is rewriting. And the more specific you can make your action lines, the better shot an actor has at turning your words into actual things they can do on the screen.
They also can help you develop your voice as a writer. You want the screenplay readers to be impressed - trust me, they're reading scripts about people who are just mad and scared and angry - if you can use deeper and more complex feelings they'll sing your praises especially if the script travels to those depths on every page.
What I love the most about these kinds of graphics are how intimate each word on the outside makes the emotion on the inside shine. When you're working out what people are feeling inside, you need to take into account the stakes, their motivations, and what's driving them. These elements of character development help to refine tension and stakes on screen.
This wheel also helps us find a natural progression for emotions. You don't want your characters to flip a switch and change; we need to see change spread out.
Examples of character emotions with gradual change
As always, think about your favorite movies and television shows. Think about the complexity of the desires of the characters. Usually, even if we haven't faced situations like the ones on screen, we have faced those emotions. I always go back to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when I'm trying to write about parents.
There are lots of scenes in that movie laden with many complex emotions. Take this excellent fire escape.
We have the essential fear of being tied up by the Nazis, the next layer of insecurity Indiana feels not being good enough to save his dad, and then the helplessness as the flames begin to lick the chair. His dad has anger this happened, frustration when he drops the lighter saving them, and lands on a disrespected feeling when his kid bosses him around.
Writing with these intentions helps this scene shine and be relatable to people everywhere.
But what happens when you only write from one emotion that doesn't escalate or get deeper?
Check out this scene from Showgirls. Yup, we went there.
Here you start a scene with one character playing happy, and the other playing jealous. There's no real tension because the emotions never go deeper than that. Each person stays in their lane. And as Nomi moves into the next encounter she...stays happy. Okay, but lots of other things are happening that should affect how she thinks, feels, and emotes. And when she finally has to deal with an excess of jealousy, she goes right to sad. This transition is jarring. It messes with the tone of the scene and the movie.
Instead of moving out of the emotional wheel, it's like she spins it and changes on a dime.
And that's not to say dime-like changes are wrong. But we need to see a trigger for why they happen. And we need emotional complexity sustained to believe.
Take this scene from Mad Men. It might be the greatest television scene of all time. It certainly ranks in the pantheon of incredible emotional and tonal shifts that completely convince the audience of the heart of every character.
Peggy storms in. She's sad. Don is frustrated. Then Don is confused and Peggy goes to anger. Then Don gets defensive, and Peggy gets frustrated. These two are dancing into each other's emotional states as this goes because then Don gets angry and finishes sad. And Peggy gets frustrated and finishes confused.
It's incredible, intricate, familial, and beautiful. And it all has to do with the words and complex emotions that each character feels outside the realm of both of them being "upset."
What's next? Get your character to arc!
Now that you know how to write complex character emotions, it's time you use those skills to get your characters to arc!
When you start to think about writing a great character in a screenplay, it can become a problem like the chicken or the egg. What came first, the character or the character arc? And when do we fall into character tropes? The truth is if your goal is to get past screenplay readers and get your script turned into a feature film or TV show, then you have to figure this out and write GREAT character arcs.
That's what this post will answer!
So click the link and get writing!