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How to show powerful emotion in a character trying to hide it?

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This question deals with showing the emotions of characters when those characters are actively trying to hide their emotions. If the emotion is something subtle, like apprehension or annoyance, you can easily convey the emotion through things like body language and the way the character speaks, or the things they do. They realize they're breathing quickly, they glance nervously around corners, they clench their fists, or they storm through doors. The character might not even be aware that they are emoting.

Little hints like this work for subtle emotions. But they do not work as well for powerful emotions. Ramp those same two emotions up to, say, terror and rage, and simply showing quick breathing or a clenched fist isn't going to get the message across to the reader. There must be a larger hint, a more obvious display of the emotion, for the reader to get just how powerful it is. There has to be a moment where the character's emotions break through, if only for a moment, and he really shows them (running in terror, yelling in rage, etc.).

The problem comes when the character in question is actively trying to quell or hide that emotion. You can get away with subtle hints, because the character might not realize he's emoting. But to show more powerful emotions, you need more obvious hints, and it's hard to believe that the character will emote that way and not realize it. He will stop himself before he starts.

Here's an example:

The war between the vampires and the elves has raged for many years. Our hero has seen first hand the suffering the vampires are capable of inflicting, and has felt loss at their hands. Young and head-strong, he is consumed with rage towards them. Our hero joins the war, and throws himself into every conflict against the vampires. His father, fearing for his safety, joins his platoon, and watches him closely. Then one day, our hero, blind with his rage and thirst for revenge, throws himself against several elite vampires. Alone and outnumbered, he quickly realizes his mistake, but it's too late. At the last moment, his father comes out of nowhere and slays the vampires, but takes the deathblow intended for his son. As he dies in his son's arms, he is at peace, telling our hero that he 'kept him safe'. Now realizing what his endless rage against the vampires has wrought, our hero swears to never let it blind him again. He returns home to his family, but his rage follows him, refusing to be quenched.

In this example, the hero feels an undying rage towards the vampires, but at the same time, he's now afraid of what that rage might cause, and makes every attempt to quell or ignore it.

I might be able to show simple hints, like a clenched fist or storming out of the door, but those won't convey the vast hatred this character feels, and the character certainly won't allow himself to give the reader any more hints than that.

Question: How can I show powerful emotion in a character who is actively trying to hide that same emotion?

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3 answers

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While emotions do show on the face and in the movement of the body, those are not the major ways that we judge people's emotions in real life. In particular, they are not the principle means by which we judge the intensity of the emotion. Different people, after all, vary hugely in how expressive they are of their emotions. Some are hugely demonstrative for no reason at all. Other are stoic through the direst of events.

We judge emotion and the intensity of emotion chiefly by our knowledge of the history of the person up to the moment that the emotional trigger occurs. We expect that a person will have an emotional reaction based on our knowledge of what has happened to them, what we know them to be hoping for.

If we know that someone has been waiting for an acceptance letter from Harvard, having spent every waking moment preparing and studying for the last ten years of their live, then if we see them go through the mail and pause on one envelope, our hearts immediately go into our mouths, and if we see them tear open the letter and read and then their face falls, we feel devastated. We know they are just heartbroken inside, even if the make little or no outward display of emotions beyond that first signal of disappointment.

Note, though, that the intensity of our emotion is not based on the information alone. You can't just tell it in three sentences like I did above. (Which I presume did not bring a tear to your eye when you read them.) You have to follow the person, let us get to know and sympathize with them, let our hope and anticipation for their success build up. Only then will the revelation provoke the desired emotion.

And remember too, that the job of the novelist is not to show emotion, it is to create emotion. Ultimately it is the emotions that the reader feels and projects onto the character that matter. Being told that the character has an emotion, being shown physical evidence of emotions, are cold and dead things if we are not feeling the emotions ourselves.

To make the readers feel emotions, give your character a dream and crush it; give your character a lover and kill them; give your character a home and burn it to the ground. Do this and there is no need to show emotion. The reader will supply the emotion all by themselves.

What then becomes interesting in the character's reaction is not that it tells us they are having the emotion, but that it allows us to calibrate the reaction against the emotion we have already projected onto them because we are feeling it ourselves. So where we have already projected profound emotion onto the character because of what we know about their history, we now observe their mild or concealed physical reaction and go Ah! They dare not show their feelings. And that introduces a new element of tension into your story, and that is good.

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"the job of the novelist is not to show emotion, it is to create emotion." Wise words. Also good job pointing out how one can't have the payout without the buildup. This does present me with a dilemma however, because the example I included in my OP is in fact the (multi-year) backstory for the main character. The events of the story begin a year after that backstory, and the backstory is never shown, only (partially) briefly related. I wonder how you would show the buildup in this scenario? Thomas Myron 2 months ago

It isn't the war, it's the wound. It's the pain of the wound. It's the dysfunction of the wound, and its attendant frustration. It's the exclusion and the loss of sense of self that comes with the wound. Emotion is not geopolitical, it is personal. Stalin was not wrong. One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic. Focus on the wound, not the war. Mark Baker 2 months ago

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Emotions influence us in a myriad of ways, even if we're trying to hide them - sometimes especially if we're trying to hide them. Show us how your characters act because of their emotions, and the decisions they make.

To build on your example:

Imagine that one evening, a knock comes on your vampire-hating character's door. One of his neighbours says that there's been a vampire spotted in the area nearby and they're gathering people with military experience to hunt it down. What does your character do?

Maybe he reluctantly says no, saying he's given that life up, then spends the next hour agonising over the decision, imagining vampires killing his friends, until he changes his mind and ends up running out to join the group anyway. Or maybe it's the other way around - he agrees immediately, then keeps remembering his father's death as he waits for the rest of the group to gather and finally, with a great deal of resistance, goes "sorry, I can't do this". Whatever happens, his emotions should be a key driving force to the point of making him act irrationally, giving your readers an insight into them... and, for bonus points, they're getting an insight into them while plot is happening! Sitting around watching a character navel-gaze isn't enjoyable and doesn't carry your story forward. Readers read to see characters do things - them also feeling things is a nice side-effect but not the main event.

The above was just an example, but the point is that it should be easy for you to throw the character into a situation where their emotions make a difference. Maybe that's a vampire hunt, maybe it's him needing to work closely together with a vampire sympathiser or a vampire who deserted and joined the elves, sky's the limit here.

If you can't think of anything... if your character has strong, powerful emotions which don't have enough of an impact on his choices and actions for you to show this way... well, frankly that's a contradiction! I would urge you to go back and look at how you're portraying the character, and/or see if their backstory is actually relevant to the story you're telling.

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At my work I have it usually easy. I have visual media to represent strong emotions, but we can extrapolate.

First ask yourself what is the consequence of suppressed strong emotion for longer period time (That is individual - go by guts what you feel your character can handle).

For negative emotion it is often anxiety, stress and in extreme condition self-destructive behavior (punching the wall, window, biting lips). All three of these stages can be represented by action when exposed to a trigger of the suppressed emotion. Let's try example with your vampires.

Your hero lived 10 years after the incident with father in peace, he did not want include his innocent family into his private war. Then his son perhaps might wanna go as a vampire on Halloween and your hero explode in rage on his own son and gives him undeserved lecture about Vampires. - This could be example of suppressed emotion where he hurts even those he loves. He verbally perhaps even physically attacked his son for reminding him the pain

Positive emotions often have consequential symptoms similar to Bipolar Disorder. Your desire to share the news or the simple celebration is strong within you and current situation does not allow it or you are waiting for you loved ones to come. But they did not come and you become very depressed that you cannot share your happiness. Here depends in what phase the Hero is confronted, he might either act manic being hyperjoyed, unfocused, hyperactive or act depressed and hurt.

Example of bad mood-swing would be: Your Hero successfully eliminated another vampire. He comes home and his wife is angry at him for coming late again. He explode on her with unrelated blame because she does not realize what he does for her, keeping her alive. And he cannot tell her, it is his war. For her, he is just a looser husband. - he instantaneously mood-swing to depression because he cannot share his success, sharing success is what made social media addictive success. People need that

Example of good mood-swing would be: Your Hero successfully eliminated another vampire. He comes home and his wife is angry at him for coming late again. Instead of snapping at her, he tells her "We can finally go to nice dinner at night, I spiked Andreas, straight through the hearth! You know what..." he start throwing money from his pocket, the blood money, "we go right now, we go to Ramseys, no! We fly to Ramsey's at London and have that Fish and Chips we always dreamed off!" - here you I would think that he just get rid of some vampire, but there are more. Andreas was pain in his but for a long time and he is manic about his death, feeling invincible, doing decisions like flying right now 6000 miles to London to have Fish and Chips.

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