Pulling from the archives today. Been one of those weeks. Enjoy the refresher!
A reader asked...
I was wondering if you could go into how you describe emotion in first person. In other words, how, without making your MC seem too self aware (unless this is their character) how you describe their physical response to things and then their emotional and mental response all staying in your MC's voice. I find that I'm running low on creativity for describing things like fear with sweat pouring down their face, or hands trembling, etc.When describing emotions in first person, write them the same way as any other description. Put yourself in your POV's shoes and describe what they feel and see and do. Instead of saying "Bob was scared," you'd show the results and outward signs of that fear. As the above says, the pouring sweat, the shaking hands and whatnot. But as our commenter also noticed, is that there are only so many words to describe things, and it can get repetitious.
The trick is to not overuse them.
If the emotion needs to be carried over a long scene, try spacing out the physical details so the reader can see the POV 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 POV 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. Like if she's having a stressful "holy cow" breakdown moment or you want that heavy does of emotion.
Also look at the more subtle ways to show fear. Folks act differently when they're scared, and their reactions and thoughts will reflect that fear. They might constantly look around, or jump at sounds, question everyone they see and worry they're coming after them. Whatever fits your POV's mindset at that moment. 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.
She might also think about the stakes or what she has to lose. Worrying about being thrown in jail can show fear just as well as shaky hands. She might even talk to herself. My protagonist Nya does this when I want an emotion to be right there on the surface. I'll write her urgent thoughts in first person italics for emphasis: Don't see me, please don't see me.
Mixing all of these elements helps space out the emotional details so you're not heaping them on the reader at once. Readers are smart, and they can figure out an emotion when they see it. Plus, if you save some details, then it gives you the freedom to do a little more if the emotions get stronger later.
If the emotion gets stronger it's usually because the stakes have gone up in some way. This is a great time to use internalization or even dialog to show what the POV is thinking about. Make that emotion personal to her and not just an external feeling, and that'll help tweak those emotional stakes as well as the external stakes.
The second part of the question asks how to show emotions without making the MC seem too self aware. That's much easier to do, actually, because 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 POV 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.Aside from being a bad sentence, the POV probably isn't going to be thinking about what's coursing through her veins or why it's doing it. People just 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."
A red flag here are cliches and word packages. (a word package is a combination of words commonly used, but haven't fallen to cliche status. Like "abject poverty" "general consensus" and "sweat from my brow"). We see them so often they slip into the text without us even noticing. They're placeholder words, relying on a cultural understanding of the phrase and not actually showing of the meaning behind that phrase, so it feels like it's describing an emotion when it's really not.
Although the question specifies first person, these tips apply to both first and third person POVs. Just like show don't tell, if you can avoid explaining why to a reader, and just show the results of that why, you'll paint a picture they can understand that puts them right in the action. Let the reader figure out why by what they see on the page.