Like with most of my ahem “advice”, I wanna preface this by saying that these are just tricks I personally use!
There’s a good chance someone out there’s already given this tip before, or that you’ll interpret my writing differently from how I do—and sorry about that in advance-! (^з^)-☆
But as our title says, subtly showing character emotions is something a lot of us struggle with, no?
Personally, I still do a good bit of the time—It’s this cycle of toning down emotions to avoid melodrama, then tuning it up again when I realise it’s now too unrealistic, so on…
So—I’d love to show you today two subtle things I do to make this easier for me! *\(^o^)/*
Specifically, I think these tricks work best on stuff like reluctance, contempt, or discomfort, so if you’re looking to portray these, then I hope I can help just a little-!!
So… yep that’s one heck of a title to start with but- I couldn’t think of anything better!
I wanna try demonstrating some of these through an extended look into my writing process, so let’s start here!
Let’s picture this scene: we’re in this quiet restaurant of sorts, and a woman is here meeting an acquaintance she doesn’t fully-trust.
He asks her to look for her wallet inside her purse, and if I was writing this scene from- well, either a first or third person view, here’s my most obvious option for starting it:
She opens her purse, taking out her wallet and showing it as asked.
But… This is a bit too bland of a sentence, yeah?
That and something about the tone is off anyways—Writing it like this, for me, gives our protagonist this helpless vibe and makes them look willing to go along with this situation without any real reason…
So- let’s make a quick change!
She opens her purse, taking out her wallet and showing it as she keeps a tight gaze on the man’s gestures.
For me, this rewrite fixes our previous problem: she’s still doing what was asked, but now with an apparent alertness that takes away our helpless portrayal of her earlier!
That and, without even saying it, we’re conveying another fact here: that our protagonist does not trust this acquaintance, which wasn’t ever stated, but her weariness here, for me anyways, is one way of implying that!
But we could add more to this, yeah~?
What if we could imply some hesitation in addition to her caution?
Her hands open her purse, taking out her wallet and showing it as she keeps a tight gaze on the man’s gestures.
Yep—seems like a minor change, but personally, I feel that shifting from mentioning her to just a part of her says something.
Something I’ve noticed across social media both here and in the west is this disapproval of referring to people with the words “female” or “male”, unless in a biological context of course, and this is a matter I personally agree with.
Because it can be a bit pretentious or dehumanising to say something like “a female walked into the bar”, can’t it?
Not to mention the binary nature of those terms when describing people socially, which, living in a conservative nation, is something I unfortunately have to explain to people a lot… to usually-limited success. (-_-;)
But for me, describing only our protagonist’s hands‘ movement has this same clinical, detached tone.
I genuinely don’t have a good term for this other than disassociation, but that might be a bit too unwieldy…
But this is one way I like to write these scenes where a character’s actions don’t reflect how they actually feel, either through coercion, inattention, or just general discomfort—
This isn’t something the character is doing, it’s either something their body is unconsciously doing, or something they’re reluctantly doing!
Here’s another quick example, trying to apply both this disassociation and emotion, I’ll challenge myself to not provide any context to what’s going on~
Chengmin waves for his mother, staring at her as he paces backwards.
Chengmin’s arm waves for his mother, his eyes darting towards her as his legs, trembling, pace backwards.
Without saying it, our changes to the first sentence suddenly add a lot more context, didn’t it?
So now, we can infer that our protagonist is uncomfortable about something—likely related to his mother, that’s what we can guess so far, but that’s already more than what we were given in the first sentence, yeah?
And that dissociation trick comes back here, which not only shows that not all of Chengmin’s gestures are conscious, but also emphasises his body’s movements more as opposed to him as a person! For me anyways, that only adds more to the tension of this scene~
There’s one more change I made there that’s unrelated to dissociation or adding emotion, which is me changing the word “staring” into “darting towards”—and this is really just weak verb substitution, which I’m confident we all know about!
Now this isn’t possible for our example sentence here, but there’s one more way I like to write this kind of subtlety: by distancing pronouns.
From someone to something…
To put it as simply and as inoffensively as I can: what if you replaced all the personal pronouns in a sentence with “it” or “the”?
One of my favourite examples of this being done is~surprise surprise~in Osamu Dazai’s (太宰治) No Longer Human, one of the most fascinating books I’ve personally read, and one I’ve briefly talked about before!
Today though, I want to point us to one of the earlier pages in the English translation of the book, as written by Donald Keene:
Of note here is that our protagonist in this chapter is not Yōzō, but someone else who’s never really named—While difficult to capture in English, it’s more obvious on a surface-level in the original Japanese text, where this person uses the pronoun “私”, whilst Yōzō mainly uses “自分”, whose usage rules I honestly can’t explain well… *\(^o^)/*
That aside, notice how this character’s pronoun usage in the passage gradually shifts from personal “he” and “him”, to inanimate and distant “it”, sometimes just going with the article “the”.
For me, de-personifying pronouns like this is an interesting way of showing contempt, disgust, or otherwise fear, like how this person exhibits these first two emotions quite plainly!
In Japanese and other languages with complex honourifics, this is easier as slight changes in words or affixes can make a sentence far more rude, but in English?
Well… this is one way of doing something similar with the same minimal changes, yeah?
For a comparison, let’s try this passage:
Hifumi’s eyes shifted to the man seated in a row across from her. What met her were cold, blurred pupils, his face twisted and bent in manners he likely could not help.
So let’s try and change this a bit with depersonalised words and pronouns in mind:
Hifumi’s eyes shifted to the male seated in a row across from her. What met her were cold, blurred pupils, the face twisted and bent in manners it likely could not help.
That’s three words I changed—but doesn’t it sound so much more clinical now?
You could argue the tone in the first passage was still somewhat neutral, but this time, there’s this underlying sense of disgust that paints Hifumi’s perspective in a new light!
(Fun fact: the kanji for the name Hifumi is literally 一二三, or “one, two, three”, and I’ve never known any meaning for it other than this, so I’ve always found it funny—sorry to anyone named that-!)
Side note: if you’re someone who uses “the” or “it” as pronouns, then I apologise here if this came across as insulting! I’m really just going by the linguistic consensus for the usage of these two right now, so as that changes, so will I!
So, not to be overbearing or condescending, but I wanna challenge myself to try and rewrite an entire passage using my two main ideas today:
- Mind-Body Disassociation
- Word / Pronoun Depersonalisation
And to make sure I don’t accidentally insult anyone, I’ll be correcting the work of an objectively-flawed writer: 2020 me!
(Feel free to skip past this if you wanna save time—this is stupidly-long and disgustingly-bad HAHAHAHAHAHAHA)
My next stop was the three international restaurants by the recreational hall. Admittedly, Alfred never sent any of us to patrol this domain, and I nearly forgot it existed in the first place. The Persian restaurant caught my attention in particular. A good portion of the chairs and tables inside had been flipped over or otherwise defaced. The moment I stepped foot on the glazed, ceramic tiles, I discerned shuffling coming from behind the counter. I stood and waited for minutes, and eventually a man peeked out. For once, I was able to set aside my doubts and within seconds, I had my rifle raised and aimed. As the man stood frozen, I fired about six shots and he snuffed it without a skirmish. Once he had fallen, I tramped behind the counter and found a cowering trio. They just turned away, not even a plea uttered in the moment. Of course, a little over a dozen bullets hastily sent all three into the skies with the first man. It was then that cries started resonating from the kitchen, but these were no ordinary cries. I took a glance through the kitchen counter, and sure enough, inside was a woman, holding back tears and clutching the grizzling infant. The mother didn’t look like she was past her thirties, and the infant was certainly below two years of age at best. They both still had long lives to live, and with the absence of any father with them, it immediately dawned on me that one of the four men I had just slaughtered could have been the missing progenitor. If that was truly the case, would putting both the mother and the child out of their misery serve them any better? I ruminated on the idea, just shooting the two and marching away “victorious”, but what would I even achieve at this point? I took aim and placed a digit on the trigger, but alas, all I could do was turn away and leave them be. I may have just shot a father to death. It didn’t seem sensible to eradicate the rest of the family. Perhaps one day, that child I spared would grow up, somehow recall this very moment, then build a career off of it. I would never live to see that day, but the prospect was unequivocally feasible.
For context, this happens during the climax from the perspective of one of the shooters: someone so resigned to his cause that he’s willing to do this for effectively nothing—the perfect type of person to apply my ideas today on!
So, can 2022 me rewrite this better~?
My next stop were the three international restaurants by the recreational hall. All across this Persian restaurant, most of the chairs and tables laid toppled, scattered, and defaced, yet as I stepped onto the glazed, ceramic tiles, some shuffling creaked from behind the counter.
I stood and waited for minutes, and eventually, a male peeked out, my hands raising the rifle at him. As his legs stood frozen, my fingers fired six shots, the body tumbling over like a rock rolling off a hill.
Behind where he was laid a cowering trio: huddled together, completely silent, as if the mouths clamped themselves shut at my arrival. My hands on my rifle’s trigger, none of these three breathe much longer, yet then echoed cries from within the kitchen.
It’s here that some lone female clutched onto a grizzling infant, her face only holding back the tears slightly-better. Neither human looked particularly aged: both still had long lives to live, and with the absence of any other person with them, it seemed either fate already handed them a twist, or somebody chose well in detaching themselves from these two.
A digit hovered over the trigger, but my legs shifted, and so did my arms—My hands couldn’t pull it, though that urge to still coursed through me… so I left them be, before they would end up too as statistics. The human toll we exacted today is more-than-sufficient, so there would be little purpose in adding to that a parent and its offspring.
…I did not enjoy writing that.
My mindset and interests are so different nowadays that this kind of edgy bastard is just not someone I find entertaining in any way anymore, and if I someday rewrite this, then for our sake I hope I can deal with the tastelessness a lot better…
…but my disgust at my own writing aside—what do you think-?
Is our perspective character’s tone and mindset clearer in the first or the second passage? And do you think my “tips” today helped with that~?
As I’m still honing this craft everyday, I’d love to hear from anyone who has any such tricks in writing! No matter how useless you think it may be, I promise you, nearly all advice I hear remains in my mind until the moment I’ll need it!
See ‘ya tomorrow for whatever comes to mind, and sending all the love once more, because past-me definitely had very little to give! ((o(^∇^)o))