The Inner Struggle: How to Show a Character’s Repressed Emotions

repressed emotions in characters

Today’s guest post is by Angela Ackerman (@AngelaAckerman), co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression (Second Edition)


Crafting characters that readers will connect to is every writer’s goal and dozens (hundreds?) of methods exist to achieve it: deep backstory planning, character profile sheets, questionnaires, etc.

Regardless of the roadmap a writer uses, writing an authentic character boils down to one important action: intentionally drawing from the real world, and specifically, the human experience.

The human experience is powerful, an emotional tidal wave that holds us in thrall. We understand it, relate to it, and live it. This is why, even when a character faces a challenge, barrier, or struggle that readers have not experienced in the real world, they can imagine it and place themselves within the folds of the character’s viewpoint.

Portraying an accurate mirror of humanity in fiction means we must master emotions. Getting raw feelings on the page isn’t done solely through a character’s shrug or smile; instead, a marriage of internal and external elements should show readers what is being felt and why. Body language, behavior, dialogue, vocal cues, thoughts, and internal sensations weave together to draw readers into the character’s emotional landscape.

Showing a character’s emotions isn’t always easy, especially when powerful emotions are at work. Characters may feel exposed or unsafe and instinctively try to repress or disguise what they feel. This creates a big challenge for writers: how do we show readers what the character is feeling when they are trying so hard to hide it?

Thankfully again, the human experience comes to the rescue. If a character is repressing an emotion, real-world behaviors can show it. Readers will catch on because they’ll recognize their own attempts to hide their feelings. Here’s a few ideas.

Over- and Underreactions

When you’ve done the background work on a character, you know how they’ll react to ordinary stimuli and will be able to write reliable responses. Readers become familiar with the character’s emotional range and have an idea what to expect. So when the character responds to a situation in an unexpected way, it sends up an alert for readers that says, “Pay attention! This is important.”

A character may fly off the handle at something that seems benign or behave subdued in a situation that should have them upset. When this happens, these unusual responses signal that something more is going on, and the reader is hooked, wanting to uncover the why behind this unexpected behavior.

Tics and Tells

No matter how adept a character is at hiding their feelings, they all have their own tells— subtle and unintentional mannerisms that hint at deception. As the author, you should know your characters intimately. Take a close look at them and figure out what might happen with their body when they’re being dishonest. It could be a physical signal or behavior, such as covering the mouth, spinning a wedding ring, or hiding the hands from view. Maybe it’s a vocal cue like throat-clearing. It might be a true tic, like a muscle twitch or excessive blinking. Figure out what makes sense for your character, then employ that tell when they’re hiding something. Readers will pick up on it and realize that, when it’s in play, everything is not as it seems.

Fight, Flight, or Freeze Responses

In the most general sense, the fight-flight-freeze response is the body’s physiological reaction to a real or perceived threat. We see this in everyday interactions: when a person invades someone’s space, stops what they’re doing mid-action, or literally flees the scene. It also happens on a smaller scale in our conversations. Remember that every character has a purpose for engaging with others. When that purpose is threatened, or the character feels unsafe, the fight-flight-freeze reflex kicks in.

  • Fight responses are confrontational in nature and may include the character turning toward an opponent to face them directly, squaring up her body to make herself look bigger, or insulting the person to put them on the offensive.
  • Characters who lean toward flight will have reactions centering around escape: changing the subject, disengaging from a conversation, or fabricating a reason to leave.
  • If the character’s fear or anxiety is triggered, they may simply freeze up, losing their ability to process the situation or find the words they need until something external happens to free them.

Passive-Aggressive Reactions

Passive aggression is a covert way of expressing anger. If a character is angry but doesn’t feel comfortable showing it, they’ll often default to certain techniques that will allow them to get back at the person without revealing how they really feel. By employing sarcasm, framing insults as jokes, giving backhanding compliments, and not saying what they really mean (We’re good or I’ll get right on that), characters are able to express their feelings in an underhanded way that others may not recognize or know how to deal with. This can be a tricky technique to use, because, by definition, passive aggression masks the truth. But you can reveal it through a character’s thoughts, the physical signals they exhibit in private (particularly just after an interaction), and the cues they express when the other person isn’t looking.

Incongruencies

The most common way to show hidden feelings is to highlight the incongruency that occurs when the character tries to mask one emotion by adopting the behavior of another. Imagine a character saying “Come in, I’d love for us to visit” but their body betrays the untruth of these words, perhaps through a strained voice, by closing of the door an inch rather than pulling it open wider in welcome, or by the keyring in their fist with the largest key thrusting out between two knuckles like a weapon.

Emotion Thesaurus 2nd EditionIf the reader is in the character’s POV, thoughts can also counterweight behavior or to provide context if the character is hiding true emotions out of fear. Incongruencies work well because all people use them to maintain the status quo in a relationship or stabilize a situation.


Note from Jane: Want more help showing hidden emotion? Check out The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression (Second Edition) with description ideas for over 130 different emotions (view the complete list), including suppressed responses.

Also helpful: One Stop for Writers’ checklists on Showing Hidden Emotions, Expressing Emotions Through Body Language, and Show & Tellfree to download.

Posted in Guest Post, Writing Advice.

Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, as well as five others. Her books are available in six languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, an innovative online library built to help writers elevate their storytelling. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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julie

I eat up everything Angela says. Her advice and insight have helped shape my writing. When you are stuck mid-paragraph, the Emotion Thesaurus will un-stick you. Writing is hard, like swimming upstream. Angela puts flippers on our feet.

PJ Reece

Angela… totally useful info here, especially as I prepare to polish my work-in-progress, a novel about a guy who is utterly up against the world of conventional wisdom… and I’m thinking now that I haven’t revealed the full spectrum of his emotions. The novel is called “How to Die Laughing,” and so of course he’s full of despair. Maybe now I can work on his proper expression of such despair. Thank you, Angela.

Katrina Byrd

Tthis is a wonderful post! Adding your book yo my reading cue now. I flounce my boa at you!

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[…] Janice Hardy gives us 3 ways moral dilemmas can strengthen your novel, Angela Ackerman explores showing repressed emotions, and Lisa Cron explains how to get emotion onto the […]

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[…] Angela Ackermann: The Inner Struggle: How to Show a Character’s Repressed Emotions […]

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[…] The Inner Struggle: How to Show a Character’s Repressed Emotions. Over and under-reactions. Tics and tells. Flight, fight or freeze. Passive-aggressive reactions. Incongruencies. […]

Thonie Hevron

I have Ackerman’s book and love it. I write mysteries so body language and cues are crucial to characterization and moving the plot forward. I’ve downloaded the offered writer’s checklist and love the concept. I’ve got a very structured brain so these charts speak to me. Love this. Thanks, Angela!

Alana White

Very helpful. Thank you!

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[…] The Inner Struggle: How to Show a Character’s Repressed Emotions | Jane Friedman […]

Judy Nickles

I’ve been struggling to realistically write a character full of repressed emotions and found your suggestions spot-on. Thanks!!