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How to Make Sure Your Character’s Personality Shines

Complete Characterization cover 1 2Getting ready for NaNoWrimo? To help you develop your characters, I’d like to share this lesson from my workshop, Dynamic Characterization: A No-Inspiration-Required System for Creating Unforgettable Characters. You’ll learn how to make sure that your character’s personality traits come through clearly on the page.


We often talk about giving our characters personality traits. But what does that mean?

A personality trait is a mode of interacting with the world, and more specifically, with other people. When we talk about personality traits, we’re really talking about habitual behaviors that people engage in.

Let’s look at some examples:

Haughty: someone who is haughty behaves as if they’re at the top of the social hierarchy.

Humble: someone who is humble behaves as if others are equally high, if not higher in the social hierarchy.

Ruthless: someone who is ruthless behaves as if the harm they do to others while pursuing their goals doesn’t matter.

Snarky: someone who is snarky behaves as if it’s their job to make fun of all the things wrong with the world (and the people in it).

Shy: someone who is shy behaves as if other people are dangerous. Shy people protect themselves by avoiding social interactions whenever possible, and minimizing social interactions when avoidance isn’t an option.

Aggressive: someone who is aggressive behaves as if the only way to get what they want is to force others to hand it over.

Generous: someone who is generous behaves as if they have enough (time, money, etc) that they can afford to share what they have with others.

Intuitive: someone who is intuitive behaves as if their gut feelings are just as valid (or more valid) than what they can understand by using logic.

Remember, traits are not just behavior, they are habitual behavior—behavior that the character displays consistently again and again.

Traits Shape the Character’s Journey

A character’s goals and motivations determine where they’re headed, but their traits (habitual behaviors) determine how they get there.

Let’s look at an example of a character who needs a bank loan.

A haughty character might try to intimidate the loan officer into giving them the loan, or try to impress the loan officer by putting on airs.

A humble character might ask for help and appeal to the loan officer’s spirit of generosity.

A ruthless character might badger the loan officer with verbal abuse or try to blackmail him into granting the loan.

A snarky character might be in danger of sabotaging her own efforts to get the loan because she can’t turn off the critical commentary—or she might endear herself to the loan officer by snarking on someone the loan officer dislikes.

A shy character might stutter or even hand over the paperwork without saying anything at all.

An aggressive person might deluge the loan officer with pie charts, spreadsheets, and a thirty-page report on why they should be given the loan.

A generous person might bring the loan officer coffee (without intending it to be a bribe) or go out of their way to rearrange their schedule for the sake of the loan officer’s convenience.

An intuitive person might listen to what their gut is telling them and refrain from pushing the loan officer to make a decision that day.

It’s the same scene: an applicant speaking with a loan officer. But you’d write that scene very differently depending on which core trait you’ve assigned to the character asking for the loan. And we haven’t even talked about the loan officer’s core trait. J

A character’s behavior in a single incident can be misinterpreted by the reader. Maybe the applicant isn’t generous, maybe she really is trying to bribe the loan officer by bringing that coffee. Or maybe she went out of her way to accommodate the loan officer’s schedule because she’s desperate for the money.

That’s why we don’t just show a character’s core traits once—we show them many different times in different situations. Habitual behavior, remember? We want to give the reader an opportunity to compare a character’s behavior across multiple scenes so that the reader naturally develops a sense of the character’s personality as the story unfolds.

Focusing on a Few Core Traits

Be selective when assigning personality traits to your main characters. Too few traits makes a character seem one-dimensional, but too many traits causes the character to seem inconsistent and/or generic.

Secondary characters can display only a single trait during their brief appearance in the story, as the reader won’t expect them to have a lot of depth, but the bigger a character’s role in the story, the better developed they should be.

Expressing Core Traits on the Page

Let’s run through the character expression elements for a character who’s displaying the trait of slyness.

If you look up the definition of “sly” on dictionary.com, you get this:

  1. cunning or wily: sly as a fox.
  2. stealthy, insidious, or secret.
  3. playfully artful, mischievous, or roguish: sly humor.

A person who is sly behaves as if the best way to get what he wants is to be secretive while manipulating others or working indirectly/behind the scenes. He’s smart or cunning enough to get away with this the majority of the time. Often, he will be playful when he feels he can do so without endangering his secrets.

Translating Traits into Character Expression Elements

Dialogue: A sly character won’t speak his mind directly or reveal his secrets easily. He’ll flatter, tease, hint, cajole, imply, speak in ambiguities or outright riddles, dole out misleading tidbits of information, lie by omission, tell half-truths—but to get the whole truth from him, other characters will have to either outsmart the sly one or threaten the sly one with a fate worse than giving up his secrets.

His playfulness may come through via teasing, wordplay, double-entendre, joking, etc.

So when you’re writing this character’s dialogue, it’s crucial that you have him speak indirectly unless he has no other choice. In each scene, ask yourself how this character will attempt to manipulate others when he speaks.

Action (voluntary and involuntary): Direct conflict will be a sly character’s last resort. He’ll do things behind the scenes, attempt to work through others, or misdirect others’ attention to give a false impression. When confronted directly, he’ll use whatever tools are available to extricate himself from the conflict: implying that another person is to blame for the problem, twisting the confronter’s words, changing the subject, defusing the conflict with humor, etc. If the conflict can’t be defused, the sly character may attempt to manipulate others into protecting him.

Because of his playful nature, he may treat life like a game, or indulge in practical jokes, or practice other sleight-of-hand or other forms of physical trickery.

Unless a sly character is alone, everything action he takes in the scene will be done for the purpose of influencing those around them.

So when you’re writing this character’s action, you will always want to ask yourself: What’s the secret agenda? How can this character appear to be doing something innocuous while furtively pursuing his goals?

Body Language: Body language is likely to be poised and controlled, with deliberately calculated facial expressions. You might show that a sly character is under extreme duress by letting his expression slip and reveal something that he didn’t intend to share.

One thing that the dictionary.com definition of “sly” didn’t include is that sly people often come across as smug or self-satisfied (it’s that “I know something you don’t know” attitude leaking through). So when you’re contemplating body language, you might want to occasionally let the reader see this character with a smug expression on his face.

Thoughts and Feelings (interior monologue, visceral sensations, intuition): If the sly character is a POV character, you’ll be showing the reader his thoughts and feelings as he schemes his way through the story, and the incongruity between his thoughts/feelings and his outward behavior will make clear to the reader what a sly fox he is.

If the sly character is not a POV character, the reader won’t necessarily know if he’s sly or sincere, and the fun will start when his true motives are discovered by other characters in the story.

Habits: Since this character has secrets to keep, he’s probably not going to keep anything important written down, or if he must have a written record of his secrets, he’s going to have a great hiding place for them.

He might make an effort to vary his routine enough that others won’t be able to predict where he is at any given time. Or he might stick to a solid routine that gives him opportunities to spend time with (and manipulate!) key people in his life.

He might have a hobby that’s deliberately calculated to project a particular image. Or perhaps he’s got a hobby that he only practices in secret, because he wants others to underestimate him when he puts his big plan into action.

He’s probably in the habit of gossiping in order to keep tabs on what everyone else is up to or to find out what they know. Maybe he even pays others to collect information for him that he can use to manipulate the people around him.

Quirks: Perhaps he sleeps with his password-protected smartphone under his pillow to be sure no one else has access to it, and never reads email unless he’s alone.

He could have developed his own shorthand code for those situations where he absolutely must write something down on paper that he doesn’t want others to discover.

He undoubtedly shreds his mail and receipts, unless he wants someone to find them.

Clothes, Accessories and Grooming: He probably wears whatever he needs to in order to project the right image at any given moment.

Tools and Special Objects: We might decide that this character is really secretive and that he has a set of lockpicks that he keeps under his mattress for snooping emergencies.

Depending on what secrets he’s keeping, he might have other special items to protect: blackmail photos, a locket of his late mother’s which he wears tucked away under his shirt to remind him why he must not rest until he avenges her, or a love letter from the high school sweetheart who turned him into the manipulative secret-keeper that he is today.

He might also have possessions that he displays prominently, not because they have sentimental value—revealing what he cares about makes him vulnerable—but that he pretends are important in order to manipulate how others see him. An expensive vase collection to serve as his “in” with the evil Duke. A rare signed baseball which he uses to convince his marks to invest in the con he’s running.

Meaningful Locations: What might be a meaningful location to a secretive person? How about someplace where he can relax and be himself? It could be some place quiet and isolated. Or perhaps he has a secret life of some sort—a girlfriend in another city, or an out-of-town bar where everyone knows him under a fake name.

Scars, Wounds, Body Modification, and Unusual Physical Traits: Hard to tell this from a personality trait—if we had an idea why he’s so secretive, maybe we’d give him a scar to fit. For example, if the secret he’s keeping has to do with being an abused child, perhaps he’ll have a scar that he reveals at the climax to prove that he’s the villain’s son. But for now, let’s leave this open until we know what kind of story we’re going to put him in.

For the sake of this exercise, we’re designing a character in a vacuum, but in real life, we almost always have at least a hint of the story that we’re building characters for, so chances are this category and the next would be things you’d already know.

Secrets: Since we don’t know what type of story he’s going to be in yet, we’ll leave this blank, but as we get more of a feel for him, we’ll revisit his secrets. He’ll have one really big one for sure, and probably several small ones that may be revealed or hinted at during the course of the story.

Relationships: There are probably few, if any, people he trusts enough to be completely open with them. Anyone he does trust is someone who has deep roots in his life—a very old friend, a sibling, or someone who owes him so much that they could never repay the debt.

For the most part, he probably thinks in terms of short-term alliances rather than long-term relationships. His relationships are likely to be based on mutual interests/problems rather than on whether or not he likes the other person.

If you choose character expression elements for your characters’ personality traits, you’ll have a list of behaviors that you can sprinkle throughout the story that will paint a clear picture for the reader–without you ever having to point out that your character has that trait.

Not sure how to choose personality traits for your characters?  Here’s a list of personality traits (in a downloadable PDF).

Choose a trait you think might be good for the character you’re developing. Then start selecting character expression elements related to that trait.

Will the behaviors that a character with that trait exhibits work for the story you want to tell?


Have a great character but struggling to come up with a plot? My workbooks teach you a plot-as-you-go method that guarantees a novel with solid story structure. Just follow the prompts and answer the questions about your characters to find out what happens next!

The 30 Day Novel Success Journal     The 30 Day Novel Romance Smashwords cover

What’s the difference between them?

The 30 Day Novel Success Journal leads a single protagonist through a growth arc during the course of the story.

The 30 Day Novel Success Journal for Romance is designed around two protagonists, each with their own growth arc, falling in love during the course of the story.

Creating Your Character’s Dominant Impression

In an earlier post, I talked in depth about dynamic characterization. Now I’d like to show you how to use dynamic characterization to create a character’s dominant impression.

A character’s dominant impression is the way you’d describe the character if you had to sum him/her up in a single phrase—just the bare essentials. The things you’d mention briefly in the back cover blurb.

For example:

  • thief with trust issues
  • space marine with a strict code of honor
  • ruthless mobster who always takes care of his people

Don’t try to cram every last detail into your dominant impression statement—focus on capturing the big picture. Here’s a simple process for homing in on the two most important things about your character:

  1. Identify the character’s primary role in the story. This role will be relevant to the external arc, the role or trait related to the story goal. (thief, space marine, ruthless mobster)
  1. Identify the character’s main trait or issue. This issue or trait will be relevant to the internal arc, which supports the theme of the story. (distrustful, strict code of honor, protective of those who are weaker)

A properly constructed dominant impression statement not only describes your character in a nutshell, but it also lets the reader know what kind of story they’re going to be reading.

For example…

“Space marine with a strict code of honor” implies that there will be spaceships, battles, aliens, cool weapons, and a good guy who’ll be sorely tempted to do the wrong thing.

“Thief with trust issues” suggests that there will be a heist, an object precious enough to be worth stealing, a character whose backstory includes a betrayal, and a second character who may or may not be trustworthy.

“Ruthless mobster who always takes care of his people” hints at an ambiguous character with a gray morality, a story about loyalty, crimes committed, police evaded, and perhaps a bittersweet ending where justice may or may not have been done.

Once you’ve nailed down a character’s dominant impression, the next step is to figure out how you’re going to demonstrate it to the reader. How are we going to do it? Using those character expression elements, what can we tell about our space marine without knowing anything else about him?

Dialogue: He probably has the habit of saying ma’am or sir when addressing a stranger or an authority figure. He’ll use military slang that civilians wouldn’t get. If he’s been fighting against or alongside aliens, he’s sure to have picked up some words from their language. Some of those will undoubtedly be alien swear words.

Since he has that strict code of honor, he’d never promise anything unless he’s sure he could keep that promise.

Actions (voluntary and involuntary): If he’s been fighting recently on a high-gravity world, we might show him making an effort to move in a relaxed way as he adjusts to being back in normal gravity. Or if he’s just left a low-gravity world, we might see him working harder to take actions that would normally be effortless.

Does his hand unconsciously move to his weapon holster when he’s threatened, even if he’s off-duty and unarmed?

If he’s used to being cooped up in a ship or on a space station, does he get vertigo when he gets planetside? Does he try to cope with the vertigo by squinting, or focusing on a point straight ahead of him, or rubbing his eyes a lot, or leaning against things whenever possible?

Body Language: He might unconsciously snap to attention when encountering an authority figure, or stand at “parade rest” during conversations.

He can probably tell if a person has military training or not just from the way they move.

Thoughts and Feelings: Does he revel in the fact that he’s on leave, or does he miss the structured days and clear rules that he’s used to when on duty?

Does he compare the food he eats at his favorite hole-in-the-wall diner with military rations and grumble that civilians don’t know how good they’ve got it?

Does he have any resentment toward the civilians he risks his life to protect? Is he proud of the fact that he makes their safe lives possible?

Does he believe that the war he’s been fighting is for a just cause, or is soldiering just a job he does because he’s good at it?

Having experienced other aliens’ cultures, he’ll have opinions about them. Have these other cultures opened his mind to other ways of doing things and made him critical of some elements of human culture? Or did they reinforce his belief that the human way is the best way?

What are the tenets that make up the code of honor that he follows? How about:

1) Polite to and protective of women

2) Never throws the first punch

3) Doesn’t tolerate bullies

4) Always backs his buddies up

Military personnel tend to get vaccinations for all sorts of diseases that a civilian wouldn’t be exposed to. Is his arm sore from his most recent round of shots? Has he had any health problems as a result of being overvaccinated?

Does the future government put chips in soldiers so that their bodies can be tracked at all times (and retrieved in the event of death)? If so, can he tell the chip is there? Does it have side effects? Does he do anything to interfere with its functioning? Or worry about being under surveillance?

Habits: Does he polish his boots? Clean his weapons every night whether he’s used them or not? Sleep in four hour increments so it’ll be easier to adjust to taking watches when he goes back on duty? Does he own more than he can fit in his rucksack?

Do the space marines issue any sort of pharmaceuticals to their troops to enhance strength, speed, alertness, perception, the ability to withstand extreme temperatures, protect against radiation, etc? If so, is he dependent on any of them, or can he stop taking them when he’s on leave? Does he experience any side effects from them? Does he go through withdrawal if he misses a dose?

Has he learned to be a light sleeper? Or to take combat naps whenever he’s got five minutes of free time? Does he tend to dream about past missions or dead comrades when he sleeps?

Does he do hundreds of pushups and situps on his off-days, to stay in shape, or is he blissfully happy to skip a day physical exertion?

Quirks: Do the space marines have a rivalry with another military branch? (I bet they do!) How does he feel about this rivalry—like he needs to defend the marines’ honor, or like it’s a stupid thing to fight over?

As a soldier, he’s going to know a lot more about weapons than the average civilian, and given a choice between two guns that might look identical to you and I, he would probably have a strong preference for one of them.

Maybe he has a hard time feeling safe even when he’s far away from the battlefield, and he improvises booby-traps or alarms to secure his room before bed each night.

In the process of traveling to strange new worlds, seeking out new life and killing it, he may also have acquired a taste for alien foods—maybe things that the average person wouldn’t even consider edible.

Clothing, Accessories and Grooming: He’d probably have a military cut (makes his helmet fit better and it’s easier to keep clean in unsanitary conditions). Does he let it get shaggy when he’s on leave, or does he prefer to keep it short?

No doubt he carries a military ID. Does it give him any special privileges? Or limit his access to anything?

How about footwear—does he feel naked unless he’s wearing combat boots? Or is he delighted to slip off the heavy clompers and put on some running shoes?

Does he wear fatigues even when he doesn’t have to? Or does he miss wearing street clothes? If he wears street clothes, do all his tee-shirts have military logos and slogans on them? If you saw him dressed normally when he’s on leave, would you be able to tell that he’s a marine by what he’s wearing?

Does he have a class ring or a unit ring? A promise ring from his girl back home?

Tools and Special Objects: He might feel uncomfortable unarmed, even in places where a civilian might feel safe, and have a permit to carry a weapon (concealed or openly).

Has he named his favorite gun?

What if the knife he always carries in his boot sheath belonged to his grandfather and his father?

Meaningful Locations: The military cemetery where both his grandfather and father were buried? The monument to the war his father died in? The small town where he grew up, and which he dreams of returning to once he’s ready to retire from the service?

Scars, Wounds, Body Modification, and Unusual Physical Traits: If he’s new to the corps, he might be unscarred, and if he’s a sensitive soul, he might even feel guilty that he’s whole while some of his friends are scarred or maimed.

But if he’s seen any amount of action, he’s probably got at least one scar. How about we give him surgical scars on that wounded knee, and a cluster of small scars on his shoulder where he caught some shrapnel?

It’s also not uncommon for military men to have tattoos of some sort—how about we give him one that shows the space marines glyph, and another small one that he got along with the surviving members of his unit after a particularly dangerous mission?

Depending on what kind of future you think he might be from, our marine might also be genetically or cybernetically enhanced in some way. A bionic eye with night vision and the ability to see different types of radiation? A reinforced skeleton and accelerated healing, to make him harder to kill? Genetically-enhanced muscles to allow him to fight on a planet with gravity three times stronger than Earth’s? Gene therapy that makes him capable of traveling through hyperspace without the usual side effects?

Secrets: Out there on the battlefield, he’s probably seen some pretty awful things. Some of those awful things may have been done by his fellow soldiers. Some he might have done himself. He probably doesn’t want to talk about them. Or does he? Will he get drunk enough to tell a stranger at a bar that he saw an innocent village massacred by mistake? Or that the recently-decorated lieutenant who’s been on all the new feeds really isn’t a hero at all?

He knows what’s really happening on the ground, too—he knows which parts of the news reports are true and which are not. If the government isn’t giving the folks back home the whole story about the war, our hero has to choose between keeping his mouth shut or spilling the beans. If he spills the beans, he’s going to have to worry about repercussions.

Relationships: How close is he to the others in his unit? Has he lost touch with all his former civilian friends? Does he have a girl in every port? Or an alien girlfriend waiting for him back on her homeworld?

Also, how do civilians react to him? Does he get called jarhead? Does he get lectured by a pacifist while he’s trying to enjoy a cup of coffee? Are others afraid of him when they find out he’s a marine? Does he get treated with respect when he’s in uniform? Does he not talk about his job because there’s always some moron who asks him how many people/aliens he’s killed? Do shopkeepers thank him for his service when he shows his military ID for a discount? Does his little brother want to hear all about the battles he’s been in?

Now let’s contemplate his code of honor. We don’t want to just tell the reader what is code is, we want to show him living by it. Here’s the basic tenets:

1) Polite to and protective of women

2) Never throws the first punch

3) Doesn’t tolerate bullies

4) Always backs his buddies up

Polite to and protective of women. Ways we could show this:

  • Put him in a situation where a woman is being rude to him, and show him keeping his temper and treating her politely anyway.
  • Put him in a situation where he sees a woman being treated disrespectfully, and show him intervening—perhaps criticizing the rude shopkeeper, or escorting her to a safe place so that the juvenile delinquents who were harassing her back off.
  • Put him in a situation where a woman is being physically abused or threatened, and show him stepping in to defend the woman.
  • Let him meet up with a bitchy ex-girlfriend, and show him resisting the urge to argue with her when she snipes at him.
  • Put him in a situation where he sees a woman in need of help, and show him helping her even though it’s inconvenient for him.

Never throws the first punch. Put him in a situation where someone is threatening or taunting him, and let us see him try to resolve the conflict without fighting. Or put him in a situation where a suspicious character appears, and it would be convenient for him to take the potential troublemaker out of commission—but show our hero waiting until the trouble starts before he tackles the troublemaker.

Doesn’t tolerate bullies. Put him in a situation where he has to either ignore someone being bullied or intervene. Make it easy for him to walk away and tough to drive the bullies off. That way, when he stands up to the bullies on the weaker person’s behalf, we’ll know his actions came from his belief that the strong have a responsibility to protect the weak.

Always backs up his buddies. Show one of his buddies doing something stupid or foolish or just plain wrong—and let us see our marine sticking around to extricate his buddy from the resulting difficult situation. Show him sacrificing something to get his friends out of trouble even—or especially—when they don’t deserve the help.

Notice that all of these are things that you can show through interior monologue, action and dialogue. They’re showable. We won’t need exposition to tell the reader how your hero is affected by being a space marine if we show even a quarter of the things we brainstormed here.

Sure, we could have just written down on a character worksheet that our space marine is chivalrous, loyal, and honorable. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as helpful in understanding how our space marine behaves.

Chivalrous is abstract. Polite to women suggests a range of specific behaviors that your character can perform.

Loyal is abstract. Willing to fight when one of his fellow soldiers gets drunk and mouths off to a group of civvies in a bar is something you can turn into a scene.

Honorable is abstract. Refuses to kill a non-combatant even when ordered to by a superior shows the reader where this space marine’s heart is when push comes to shove.

Still with me?

That was a lot, I know…but we did it one small step at a time, and you can build complex, multi-dimensional characters the same way.

And notice that we haven’t even looked yet at this character’s personality traits–all we’ve talked about so far are the ways this character has been shaped by his experience of being a solider in a futuristic setting. We still don’t know if he’s shy or sarcastic or philosophical or compassionate.

Now that you’ve seen how it works–I challenge to choose a character you’re developing for NaNoWriMo or a character from your work-in-progress, and create his/her dominant impression.


Want some help getting ready for NaNoWriMo? Check out The 30 Day Novel Success Journal or The 30 Day Novel Success Journal for Romance. Both of these workbooks contain a unique story blueprint and brainstorming prompts that show you how to plot your novel one day at a time and come out with a well-structured story.

What’s the difference between the two workbooks? The 30 Day Novel Success Journal is intended for a story with a single character growth arc. The 30 Day Novel Success Journal for Romance results in a story where the two main characters have growth arcs as they fall in love with each other.

Editing for Emotion: How to Show What Your Characters Are Feeling

Have you ever written a scene that made your heart race and your eyes tear up—only to be told by your critique partner that it needs more emotion?

It’s a common problem. When you’re imagining the scene in your head, it’s natural for you to feel the characters’ emotions. But because you’re already feeling them, it can be hard to tell whether you’re capturing those emotions with the words you choose.

That’s okay! Just keep writing. Some emotions will make it onto the page. As for the rest—it’s easy to layer them in when you’re editing.

What are the ways that character emotions are expressed in words on the page?

  1. Dialogue
  • What characters say
  • How they say it
  • What they don’t say (change subject or leave things out)
  • When they’re silent
  • What they want to talk about and what they won’t talk about

Read through just the dialogue in the scene (out loud, if it helps) and identify the emotion the character should be feeling when speaking each line. How does this line of dialogue suggest or hint at that emotion? Identify how the emotion is expressed on the page:

  • Content
  • Word choice
  • Curse words, exclamations
  • Unusual grammatical constructions
  • Terse or abbreviated sentences
  • The way the character’s voice is described
  • Punctuation or formatting used for emphasis
  • Etc.

Does every line of dialogue in the scene express an emotion? If not, why not? Is the character deliberately masking their feelings? Are they delivering factual information that they don’t care about?

For each line of dialogue that is emotionally neutral, decide whether you will rewrite it to have an emotional charge. A character might say something shocking or hurtful but phrase it matter-of-factly, and that’s not a problem—in fact, the contrast between what a person says and how they say it can strengthen the emotional impact.

  1. Action
  • Voluntary physical action
  • Involuntary physical action (fidgeting, self-touching, and other unconscious movements)

The physical action in a scene is going to be directed primarily toward the characters achieving their goals, but since the drive to achieve those goals is emotional, action is a great way to externalize character emotions.

How a character chooses to perform the simplest physical action, how they interact with objects (voluntarily or not), and even which actions they choose to avoid can telegraph what he or she is feeling.

  1. Body Language/Non-Verbal communication
  • Gestures
  • Facial expression
  • Posture
  • Proximity (distance from another character or an object

Body language is an often-underutilized tool for expressing character emotion. Giving a character body language that contradicts or otherwise doesn’t match what they say is an effective way of adding subtext to dialogue.

One of my favorite resources for body language is the Center for Non-Verbal Studies’ website, The Non-Verbal Dictionary: http://center-for-nonverbal-studies.org/6101.html

I also recommend reading books on body language and making lists of non-verbal behaviors that cluster together: for example, an angry person doesn’t just narrow their eyes, they may also tense their shoulders, make fists, grit their teeth, draw their eyebrows together, or snarl, depending on how angry they are, who they are angry with, if they are trying to hide their anger, etc. Once you have a list of non-verbal behaviors that cluster around the emotion of anger, you can then decide what combination of these each character might display when he’s angry in a particular situation.

  1. Thoughts and Feelings
  • Interior monologue
  • Narration
  • Visceral sensations (involuntary reactions, like a shiver or nausea)
  • Intuition (often expressed as a visceral sensation followed by a thought that interprets the sensation)

This is the most obvious way character feelings show up on the page—narration, interior monologue, and descriptions of visceral sensations. It’s important to have a good balance of these on the page, without relying on them too heavily.

What’s “too heavily”? That depends on the tone of your story, your characters’ personalities, and whether you’re writing in first person or third person (first person will usually have more of the POV character’s thoughts and feelings than third person, as in third person you want to create the illusion that the reader is witnessing events rather than being narrated to by a character).

Putting It All Together

Once you understand the four modes of emotional expression through which characters’ feelings are revealed to the reader, you can have fun with it.

You can show (or hint at) a character’s inner conflict by using conflicting modes—for example, your hero’s body language and thoughts might reveal anxiety, even though his words and actions suggest confidence.

You can subtly show conflict between two characters who seem to be working together by making sure that their respective body language expresses the conflict that both of them are working to hide on the surface.

If you’ve got a character who’s deliberately masking their emotions to other characters, you can be sure that her thoughts and feelings give hints of emotion to keep the reader connected with the character.

And you can intensify the emotional impact of a big scene by making sure all four modes slam the reader with variations of the same emotion.

Happy editing!