Learning Characterization From TV

How To Show Your Characters' EmotionsWatching TV or movies you love can help you improve characterization in your own fiction.

Screenwriters almost always show characters’ emotions through their actions and choices, not by telling the audience how the characters feel. In other words, TV and film provide lots of examples of the best side of the “show don’t tell” advice.

Show Don’t Tell

As a new writer, I often struggled with “show don’t tell” because I thought it applied to everything.  For example, let’s say my character grew up in Chicago. I thought I couldn’t simply tell the readers that through narration.

Yet no other way made much sense to me.

Writing flashbacks of the character’s childhood in Chicago struck me as time consuming and likely to bore the reader.

And putting it in dialogue seemed artificial: “As you know, Sue, I grew up in Chicago.” Or, “Say, Jamal, since you grew up in Chicago, you must know where the Sears Tower is.” (Yep, a lot of us Chicagoans still call it the Sears Tower.)

Finally a writing instructor told me “show don’t tell” mainly applies to emotions, not background facts.

Insides Or Outsides

That insight helped make my fiction less clunky. For a long time, though, I still didn’t quite grasp how to show a character’s feelings. I thought it meant revealing emotion through the physical sensations the character experienced.

So my characters’ hearts raced or their palms sweated. They heard buzzing in their ears or felt their stomachs drop.

These types of physical sensations draw readers into a character’s experience. Which is definitely stronger than saying, “She felt anxious.” But it has its limits.

For one thing, people get sweaty palms due to anything from public speaking to a driver’s exam to committing murder. (I don’t know about that last one from experience, by the way. Just guessing.)

This is where watching TV or films comes in.

Unless there’s a voiceover to share the character’s inner life, and that’s rare, emotion can’t be shown through physical sensation or narration. Instead, the screenwriter shows emotion through what the character chooses to do. (Or say, but I’ll talk about dialogue in other articles.)

Next time you watch an episode of TV or a film you find compelling, focus on what the characters do and what emotions that conveys. To get a better sense of how that works, turn off the sound.

Now let’s talk about how to apply what you see to your own writing.

Action As Characterization

Compare these examples:

  • Aaron felt scared.
  • Aaron’s heart raced.
  • Aaron locked himself in the closet and remained motionless, his back against the wall, his knees at his chest, and his hands clamped over his mouth.

The third example is the only one that works for a television show or movie. It shows Aaron’s fear solely through his actions. It’s also the most powerful.

That’s because Aaron’s actions cause the audience to infer how he feels, making them a more active part of the story. Also, to do it, they must draw on day-to-day life, where all of us guess at other people’s emotions as we interact with them. And the more interacting with a character feels like real life, the more the character feels like your reader’s friend, enemy or acquaintance.

Finally, Number 3 is powerful because it conveys information about where Aaron is and what’s likely going on around him rather than only his emotion or physical sensations.

Imagining A TV Scene

Now when I’m truly stuck on how to get my character’s feelings across to the reader, I imagine the scene as part of a television show.

For instance, when writing The Worried Man, the first book in my detective mystery series, in my first draft I included the inner physical sensations of my main character, Quille, the morning after finding her boyfriend’s dead body. They were vivid, but something was missing.

Before I revised, I shut my eyes and saw a scene as if it were on TV.

In it, Quille stands in her closet and stares at her clothes. Finally, she pulls on a T-shirt her boyfriend left there. But she freezes in the middle of doing so, breathing in the scent of it. She can’t move because she doesn’t want to go on to the next moment of life without him.

I don’t tell the readers that last part, though. I let them infer how overwhelming her grief is through her actions. Or in this case, her inaction.

Characterization Is More Than What You See

Because as novelists we can go beyond the visual I’m not suggesting you limit yourself to what the reader can see. With the written word, we get the best of all worlds. We can show a character’s inner sensations and outer actions. And we can delve into the all the senses.

Going back to the example, a novel or short story can combine 2 and 3. Aaron’s heart can race as he hides, frozen and silent, in that closet.

Why not throw in 1 as well? We don’t need it. 2 and 3 together show the audience Aaron is not just scared but petrified.

And remember to use the other senses. Television and film necessarily draw mainly on the senses of hearing and sight. But you can and should consider how the senses of touch, smell, and taste can convey emotion.

Aaron, for example, might become hyperaware of the smell of dust or stale smoke in the closet. Especially if it makes him want to cough, sniffle, or sneeze and give away his location to an intruder.

That’s all for now. See you next time.

L.M. Lilly

P.S. Looking for help with the plot of your novel? Click here for free story structure worksheets and more.

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