One of the cornerstone pieces of advice for writers is show, don’t tell. One of the places people like to focus is on character emotions. Rather than telling the reader a character is sad, write it in such a way that actions and body language show the emotion for you. It sounds easy enough, but tapping into those emotions can be a challenge if you are not used to it. Showing emotion enhances the reader’s connection to the character because of the familiarity it generates, and creating that connection can be the difference between investment and indifference toward your characters.

Now, I have spent a lot of time looking in the mirror trying to identify characteristics for various emotions so I can convey them in words. While helpful, there is a certain artificiality to the practice, and has led my wife and kids to think I have lost my mind on occasion. I’ve found that the mirror method leads to a certain amount of exaggeration which can take your character from relatable to ridiculous.

Movies are great resources for visualizing emotions of all sorts. As much as Revenge of the Sith left me wanting, when Anakin tells Obi-wan that he hates him, man you know it is more than just words. When Tony Stark is devastated by the dusting of Peter Parker in Avengers: Infinity War, it hits you like a hammer without him having to say a word. The movies are rife with non-verbal queues and I recommend taking notes when you can.

However, sometimes, you need a quick and easy list to refer to, so I thought I would do just that.

Below are some common emotions and some visual queues that go along with them. This list is not definitive and is very much Western culture oriented, but it is a good starting place to work from. I use it as a reference when I need to inject a little showing of emotions and I don’t want to spend time staring at the mirror.

1. Happiness

  • Smile: Genuine smiles involve the mouth and eyes, with “crow’s feet” appearing around the eyes.
  • Relaxed posture: Shoulders down, arms at sides or gesturing freely.
  • Open body language: Uncrossed arms and legs, leaning slightly forward.
  • Eye contact: Frequent and warm.

2. Sadness

  • Downturned mouth: Corners of the lips turned down.
  • Drooping posture: Slumped shoulders, head down.
  • Slow movements: Reduced energy and slower physical responses.
  • Avoiding eye contact: Looking down or away.

3. Anger

  • Furrowed brows: Eyebrows pulled together and down.
  • Tensed muscles: Tight jaw, clenched fists.
  • Staring: Intense, direct eye contact or glaring.
  • Aggressive stance: Leaning forward, hands on hips.

4. Fear

  • Wide eyes: Eyelids raised and pupils dilated.
  • Tense body: Muscles tightened, possibly frozen in place.
  • Rapid breathing: Quick and shallow breaths.
  • Covering: Hands or arms protecting the body or face.

5. Surprise

  • Raised eyebrows: Eyebrows lifted high.
  • Open mouth: Jaw dropped slightly.
  • Widened eyes: Eyes open wide.
  • Sudden movements: Quick reactions, like jumping or stepping back.

6. Disgust

  • Wrinkled nose: Nose scrunched up.
  • Raised upper lip: Upper lip lifted, showing teeth.
  • Averting gaze: Turning head or looking away.
  • Pushing away: Hands or body moving back from the source of disgust.

7. Contempt

  • Slight smirk: One side of the mouth raised.
  • Eyes rolling: Looking away with an upward roll of the eyes.
  • Head tilt: Slightly tilted head with a dismissive look.
  • Arms crossed: Defensive or dismissive posture.

8. Confusion

  • Furrowed brows: Eyebrows knitted together.
  • Head tilt: Slight tilt to one side.
  • Scratching head: Hand movements like scratching or touching the head.
  • Pursed lips: Lips pressed together.

9. Interest

  • Leaning in: Body angled towards the source of interest.
  • Nodding: Slow, frequent nods.
  • Open gestures: Hands and arms open, palms visible.
  • Focused gaze: Direct eye contact, attentive facial expression.

10. Boredom

  • Yawning: Mouth wide open, covering with a hand.
  • Restless movements: Fidgeting, tapping fingers or feet.
  • Looking away: Gazing around the room or at a clock.
  • Slouching: Poor posture, leaning back or slumping.

What would you add to the list? Is there anything you would change? What do you use for emotional references? Let me know in the comments.

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