Monday, June 17, 2019

You're So Emotional: Describing a Character's Emotions in a First Person Point of View

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A first-person narrator has a unique set of challenges, and describing emotions is one of them. 

For many readers, emotion is a big reason why they picked up a particular novel. They want to feel connected to the characters, experience life through their eyes, escape into their worlds. Bringing those emotions to the surface is critical to bringing the story alive.

Except sometimes, we go overboard and shift from emotion to melodrama. Our protagonists are too whiny, too stuck in their heads, to self-aware of what they're feeling all the time and that's draws attention away from the story.

This is particularly easy to do with a first-person narrator, because everything is so deep in that character's point of view. If we go emotionally overboard, our characters don't feel like natural people, because no one walks around fully aware of every little feeling they have and why they have it.

No matter the point of view, writing emotions is no different from writing any other description. 

Describing how a character feels is done the same as describing what they're looking at, it's just an internal view versus an external one. Describe what the character feels and sees and does. For example, instead of saying "I was scared," show the results and outward signs of that fear.
  • My throat tightened
  • My hands shook so hard I nearly dropped the knife
  • Please don't see me, please oh please oh please
Readers can figure out that the narrator is scared by how he or she reacts, not by being told "I was scared."

Good description comes from the same place, no matter what type it is (emotional, setting, stage direction)--what does the point of view character experience? 

Not every character "feels" the same way. 

Remember, not everyone reacts the same way emotionally, and those reactions and thoughts will reflect how that character personally handles whatever emotion you're trying to convey. If you grew up in a household where anger = shouting, meeting someone whose family never shouted but only muttered snide comments under their breath at each other when angry might seem weird to you.

If a character is scared, she might constantly look around, or jump at sounds, question everyone she sees and worry someone is coming after her. She might grab a weapon and hold it tight, or put her back to a wall. She might pull her hair forward and hide behind it so none can see her face.

Worrying about being thrown in jail can show fear just as well as shaky hands. The character might even talk to herself or think about her situation. My protagonist Nya does this when I want an emotion to be right there on the surface, such as, "Don't see me, please don't see me.

Tailor the emotional responses to whatever fits your point of view character's mindset at that moment in that scene. 

(Here's more on Alternative Ways to Describe Character Reactions)

Don't make your character sounds too self-aware

A common pitfall with first person point of view is having a character who's just to self-aware of how he or she feels at every moment.

This is an easier fix than you'd think: As long as you don't write her noticing she's scared or reflecting on her emotions, she just feels them.

For example, here's a point of view character who knows exactly what she's feeling and why:
I wiped the sweat from my brow, fear from my narrow escape coursing through my veins.
The point of view character probably isn't going to be thinking about what's coursing through her veins or why it's doing it. People don't think about themselves in this fashion. They don't narrate their own life. It would be more like...
Sweat dripped into my eyes and I wiped my face on my shirt. I got away. I can't believe I got away. I stumbled to a bench and sat down, my trembling legs barely getting me there.
Here she notices how she feels, what she's thinking, how her body is reacting. It's looking outward from her skin, not inward at her skin. Don't explain why, but give enough clues so the reader can easily surmise the why. "Oh, she must be scared."

(Here's more on Do You Think He Likes Me? Conveying Emotions in Your Novel)

Try to avoid repetition when describing emotions.

One pitfall of writing emotions is that they can sound repetitious after a while. Every time someone gets scared they shake, or sweat, or react in exactly the same way. Since there's a decent chance whatever emotion they're feeling is one they're likely to feel for the entire novel, finding new ways to express it will be important.

(Here's a great resource book for finding new ways to describe emotions)

If the emotion needs to be carried over a long scene, try spacing out the physical details so readers can see the point of view character is feeling X emotion, and then slip in little reminders as the scene unfolds that the emotion hasn't changed.

If it's fear, the point of view character might start out with a racing heart, get the shakes later, wipe sweat from her brow after that. Avoid having her feel all three at once unless the scene calls for it, for example, if she's having a stressful "holy cow" breakdown moment or you want that heavy does of emotion.

Mixing the types of emotional reactions helps space out the emotional details so you're not heaping them on readers at once. Plus, if you save some details for later, then it gives you the freedom to expand if the emotions get stronger later.

Readers are smart, and they can figure out an emotion when they see it. 

(Here's more on Using Vocal Cues to Show Hidden Emotion)

Just like show don't tell, if you can avoid explaining why to readers, and just show the results of that why, you'll paint an emotional picture readers can understand that puts them right in the action. Let them figure out the why by what they read on the page.

How do you handle writing about emotions? 

Last updated: June 2019.

If you're looking for more to improve your craft, check out one of my books on writing: 

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I'll admit, I have a tendency to do this (and I don't mean the great examples you've given to do it RIGHT). Thanks for giving me a different way to look at it and fix the problem.

  2. Thanks for the great tips. It is so hard not to sound cliche or overuse phrases when describing feelings, like fear. Spacing them out like you suggested to not overuse them is a great idea.

  3. Despite her many other glaring inadequacies, Charlaine Harris isn't too bad at doing POV. Sometimes she gets really bone-headed about it, but most of the time it's pretty well done. I recommend her Sookie Stackhouse series for good examples of how to do POV well (and examples of how to do it poorly). Her 1st 3 books are pretty shoddily written, but the rest are decent (book 10 seems to regress a bit in her skill level).

  4. I like your "placeholder" words. I hadn't thought of it quite like that before.

  5. Great post. Thanks so much for this information!


  6. Great post. These are some of the scenes I enjoy best - where I can really get to grips with recreating the experience for the reader. The key, as you say, is living in the scene vividly. I'm tweeting this.

  7. I love your definition of word package. I usually refer to those as cliche'-ish. ;-)

  8. I found your advice to spread out the reaction, and hold a bit back to stretch it out, very helpful. I first struggled to remember to put it in, then I found I was overdoing it. This is just what I needed. Thank you!

  9. Dirtywhitecandy, thanks! I have a few voracious reader friends who aren't writers. No nothing of craft. I LOVE listening to the talk about the books they like, because they talk about the emotions and the characters. They don't care about the things writers care about. But they see the effects!

    Sue, thanks! I read that somewhere years and years ago. Wish I remember who said it :)

    Macswriter, glad I could help. The same technique works for description, too.

  10. Your advice is always the best, most helpful, and clearest explained of any blog on the net. Love it!

    1. Thanks so much! I do try. Glad it's working.

  11. Here's a clip from my historical novel "Bloody Mountain." I hope it shows the emotion of anger.

    What say you?

    Hill Beachey went to Tom Farrell’s room and pounded on the door. “Tom,” Beachey said, “we got the extradition order! It’s time to take these murderers back to Lewiston for trial. I have to arrange passage for them and me, but you have to leave now. Take the next fast ship north to Portland and get on home. We’ll need the town to be ready when I get there. Take the Shasta Queen. She’s firing up her boilers right now. Talk to Acting Governor Daniels, and Sheriff Fisk. Go up to Lapwai and talk to Major Truax as well. We’ll need some armed troops to keep the folks from lynching these murderers. He’ll know what to do. Get all the help you can.”
    “Sure thing, Hill,” Farrell said. “I know exactly what you mean.”
    “Maggie will never forgive me if this ends in another lynching.”
    “You can count on me,” Tom Farrell concluded.
    The two men shook hands. Farrell went on down to the wharf to purchase passage north. Beachey turned on his heels and strode south on DuPont Street. He walked past the DuPont House and the Lick House where the murderers were caught and on through China Town, taking in all the smells and sounds of the strange enclave of industrious immigrants scurrying about their business. He turned left on Commercial Street, stopping at the US Mint.
    “Mister Cheesman, please,” he said to the man behind the caged window.
    “Your business, sir?”
    “The Magruder Gold.”
    “We have no such deposit, sir.” The clerk sniffed.
    “Don’t give me that, goddamn it,” Beachey said, his exhausted face reddening. “You know perfectly well Captain Lees has put a hold on the Magruder gold that he seized from those murderers. It’s been in the newspapers several times since I’ve been here. Just get me Cheesman.”
    “I beg your pardon, sir. You must understand my position. Please make yourself comfortable, and I’ll get Mister Cheesman.”
    Cheesman finally appeared, but not before Beachey felt his temper rising. He thought about Stanford, whether he should appeal to the governor once more for assistance.
    “Mister Beachey, what can I do for you?” Cheesman asked.
    “I want to transfer Lloyd Magruder’s gold into a position for benefit of Missus Magruder. With Lloyd gone, she has no means of support,” Beachey said.
    “I understand your concern, but you must realize that gold deposit hasn’t been conclusively attributed to Magruder. I can’t release it to you now.”
    “Well, goddamnit, when will you be able to release it?”
    “Perhaps after you have brought them to trial, assuming they are convicted.”
    “Oh, they’ll be convicted,” Beachey declared. “You can count on it.” He would die to make that happen.
    “We shall see.”
    “Now please give me a statement of this account.”
    “I can’t do that either,” Cheesman said.
    “Goddamnit! Goddamnit! I’ll go back up and to Sacramento see the goddamned governor if I have to, but I’m going to get an accounting of Lloyd’s goddamn gold. Before I leave this goddamn lascivious sidehill masquerading as a goddamned city! Before! You got that? Now give me the goddamn statement of account, unless you want Leland down your goddamn collar.”
    “Yes, goddamnit! Leland Stanford! The goddamn governor!” Beachey stopped short, ashamed of his temper and his language.

    1. I get anger from that. And growing frustration and annoyance as well. It builds from mild to very anger and on the edge of (or passed) losing control.

  12. Thank you, Janice. That's what I was hoping to hear.