The Emotion Thesaurus

A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression

My first-draft protagonists exhibit two emotions and two postures. They smile. They frown. They lean forward and back. Sigh. They’re a stiff lot.

To put emotional meat on my characters’ brittle white bones, I created a three-by-five-card file of evocative physical reactions from a variety of sources. Here’s one example from an interview with actor Michael Caine: “Strong characters never blink.” Good one, Michael!

By last measure, eighteen inches of my bookcase is devoted to discarded craft books designed to help my characters giggle and shriek in the most lifelike manner. My most recent acquisition is my favorite: The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression self-published in 2012 by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

The book begins with a recap of Common Problems. Given that I suffer from every single problem, it’s a short but sobering read. But Ackerman and Puglisi don’t leave you to wallow in despair. After a short primer on how to discover just the right gestures and feelings for your characters, they launch into the details of their seventy-five emotions. Randomly excerpted sentiments include: agitation, contempt, disgust, envy, insecurity, rage, scorn, uncertainty, and worry. Roughly the same emotions experienced by the average teenage girl before lunch.

Emotional elaborations include Definition, Physical Signals, Internal Sensations, Mental Responses, and Cues of Acute, Long-Term, or Suppressed Emotions. “Writer’s Tips,” such as this one following “smugness,” end each emotional exploration: “When describing a character’s feelings, the word ‘felt’ is often a cue for telling emotion, not showing. Run a search for this word and challenge yourself on its use.”

Visit the author’s website at to download a free copy of “Emotion Amplifiers, a collection of fifteen states that naturally galvanize emotion and make a character more volatile.” While you’re online, you may want to purchase a hardcopy ($10) or PDF ($5) version of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression.

“It’s a great addition to your library,” Jo said as she leaned forward with a smile. (Damn first drafts.)

Written and Contributed By CWC Marin Board Member Jo Haraf

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