How to Reveal Character Emotion Without Venturing Into Cliché

John Thornton Williams

John Thornton Williams

One of the most important goals of any fiction writer is getting the reader to connect on an emotional level with the story’s characters.

But how do you accomplish this without being clumsy—without saying, directly, “Joe felt so upset he wanted to die,” which takes you right into the heart of cliché?

John Thorton Williams offers this suggestion:

[Take] into consideration how a certain character would experience a particular setting or image based on his/her emotional state. Something as simple as a car parked on the street surely looks different to a lottery winner than to someone who just got evicted. In other words, indirection of image is a way to take abstract emotions and project them onto something concrete. Doing so creates the potential to explore interiority at a greater depth than what’s afforded by mere exposition. 

Williams goes on to show a specific example from William Gay’s fiction. Click here to read the full piece over at Glimmer Train.

For more writing advice and inspiration from Glimmer Train, check out these pieces:

Posted in Creativity + Inspiration and tagged , .

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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A.K. Andrew

I love the whole concept of indirection of image. It’s a real challenge for a writer to show their characters emotions without simply telling, and yet for the work to be any good we need to find ways of doing just that. The example you used of picking up the magazine in the hospital was brilliant. You could totally feel his inner emotions of being both tired and weighed down by the situation he was in. I will remember that image as a great example to work from. Thank you so much both John and Jane.

Susie Warren

I think this a very powerful example of how to define a character without telling the reader everything. Event the briefest image can help tell a story.

[…] give me a Country Music song to get the job done, but as for writing, I need quiet to hear my characters speak. I wish I could write for hours on end, but my life is probably much like yours, so I write […]


This is excellent advice, how emotions are conveyed is a clear sign of how well the author can write. It reminds me of method acting, an acting method in which the actor should ask himself “How would I behave if I would really feel this way?” That way he doesn’t have to pretend, because he acknowledges that the situation is a hypothetical one. The idea is: Don’t act, be! When writing, we should be totally in character and in some way constantly (method) acting… The difference to the screen trade is just that we are not imitating the feeling with… Read more »

Claude Nougat

Very useful approach. In a way, that reminds me of Stephen King’s advice too. I’ll never forget how he describes the rise of an idea for a book: like bones buried in the sand that you have to unearth, bit by bit. Here, the bones are out in the open, you need to put flesh and blood on them to make them come alive…


An example of shown grief can be found in BROADBACK MOUNTAIN. The lover holds a shirt against his body and we know it contains a memory, and we know he regrets not having the courage to go with his lover. The mother, devastated by her own grief, lets him take the clothing away without ever admitting she knows the true relationship between her son and the guest. The pain is there, but it is never spoken. The actions say more than any dialogue or blunt telling.

[…] One of the most important goals of any fiction writer is getting the reader to connect on an emotional level with the story's characters. But how do you accomplish this without being clumsy—without…  […]

[…] presents How to Reveal Character Emotion Without Venturing Into Cliché posted at Jane […]


Looks like Glimmer Train changed their website, so here’s the new link for anyone looking for it: