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:

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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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