When we read we do so to engage with characters. We want to join them on their journey, form a bond and connect with them. We want to cry genuine tears when they struggle through hardships, and laugh at the antics they get up to.
To be touched by characters in fiction, we need to be convinced that the emotions they’re feeling are authentic. Effectively conveying a character’s feelings can be difficult, but it’s a vital skill to master.
The age-old advice to conveying characters’ emotions is, of course, show don’t tell.
Take a look at this sentence:
‘Andrew bent down and scanned the headline of the newspaper. His eyes were angry.’
Andrew is angry in this scene, but rather than feeling connected and invested in the story behind his anger, you probably just felt distant. That’s because ‘His eyes were angry’ is telling the emotion instead of showing, and it doesn’t feel authentic. Sure, the writer is telling you he’s angry, but there’s no sense of genuine anger at all! You could easily replace ‘angry’ with another emotion, and the sentence would still make sense — there is nothing that specifically shows anger.
Showing makes feelings more believable, and it lets you imagine their emotions vividly in your mind. There are many ways to express a character’s emotions without explicitly labelling that they’re ‘sad’ or ‘angry’. For example, a character’s emotional state can be revealed in their body language and how they express something.
However, today I’ll be focusing on one technique in particular: using sensory images. After I finished reading At Roane Head, I was immediately inspired to write about this topic. At Roane Head is a poem where sensory imagery is woven into every stanza, and ultimately, it makes the poem a highly emotive and intense read.
Sensory imagery is the term given to description which incorporates the senses (touch, sight, taste, smell and sound). Senses have an integral role in how we process emotion, learn and interpret. Our emotions are always influenced by sensory imagery; we associate certain smells and sounds with danger, while others we may associate with fond memories.
Our emotions can also influence how we perceive sensory imagery, and what we pay attention to — if you’re scared, you’re more likely to be fearful of that half-opened wardrobe!
Considering this, for a character’s emotions to feel authentic, showing their emotions through their senses is crucial.
Check out this opening from George Orwell’s 1984:
‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him. The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats.’
The sensory imagery here conveys Winston Smith’s emotional state without explicitly telling the reader. Winston is describing the world around him extremely negatively – he is focusing on the ‘vile wind’ and associating the hallway with the foul smells of “boiled cabbage and old rag mats”. It is clear his gloomy attitude is influencing how he perceives, and what he is paying attention to. He doesn’t need to tell us he is gloomy, as based on the sensory imagery, we can easily imagine his outlook. As we can also imagine his emotion tangibly (not abstract), Smith’s emotion also feels authentic.
Sensory imagery is one of the best ways to effectively convey your character’s emotion. However, sensory imagery also has another purpose: it allows readers to feel the same emotions your character feels.
Have you ever had that scenario when someone tells you the room smells like a certain food? And shortly after, you too felt like that the room smelt like that?
This same principle also works in fiction. After all, emotions are always influenced by sensory imagery – even if it’s being described in a fictional account. Sensory imagery is concrete, and it forces your readers to imagine the sensation. Consciously or not, readers’ emotions are going to be influenced by what they’re imagining. So, sensory imagery not only works to give characters authentic voices, but it also serves to allow readers to share in their emotions, experiences, and connect with them intimately.
Having troubles with crafting dialogue? Then make sure to check out our top tips for dialogue.