[Zetta’s Reference Desk] – The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression

emotion thesaurusTitle: The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression

Author(s): Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi

Year Published: 2012

Purchased: Amazon

Pages: 164

Over the last several years, I’ve done more editing of other people’s writing than my own writing and editing. But now that I’m forcing myself to listen to my muse, I’m writing more.

Switching hats from editor to writer can take some doing, but I practice what I preach. Issues I flag in my clients’ writing, I look for in my own. One of the many things I look for in writing is repetition. Not just the repetition of words and phrases—but actions and reactions.

Have you ever read a story where all the characters seem to be smiling, thinking, laughing, or even HISSING at each other without variation? Or, on the flip side, characters are acting out with descriptions that have them barking, reflecting, ruminating, and thundering.

While there’s nothing wrong with these words (except “hissing” is often used incorrectly and will be the subject of a separate post!), they only convey half the story, if you will. The reader is being told how a character is responding rather than being shown their reaction.

It can be difficult when you’re writing to balance “showing” versus “telling,” but for the sake of variety and keeping your reader awake, you should aim for such a balance. People (e.g. your characters) show the same emotions in different ways. This is what makes them unique. One person may shout when angry while another person gets quiet before they explode all over the place.

Not every writer has every detail of their story and characters nailed down when they start to write. Even if they do, that doesn’t mean things can’t change as the story evolves. Your character may run into a situation that calls up a character trait you haven’t thought about, or maybe you’re struggling trying to breathe life (realism) into a character.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression can help you by giving you various emotions broken down into elements where you can pick and choose what you need.

Before getting to the thesaurus, authors Ackerman and Puglisi give insight on “the power of emotion” and how important it is to communication itself by way of verbal and nonverbal communication.

Next, the authors give a few tips on writing to help get around certain things that can weaken prose like telling, clichés, and melodrama, which can happen if you don’t take care in how you convey your character’s emotions.


“You don’t want the reader to only see what’s happening; you want them to feel the emotion, and to experience it along with the character.”


“When writing a certain emotion, think about your body and what happens to it […]  Watch people […] know your character.”


“To avoid melodrama, recognize that emotions run along a continuum, from mild to extreme…”

Finally, the authors explain how to use the thesaurus. Start with the main or “root” emotion and look it up. Then consider the setting or the scene that is causing the emotional response—and run with it, without being clichéd or going overboard.

The Emotion Thesaurus is only 164 pages long, so it’s not like it has every emotion listed. In truth, it only details 75 emotions. The authors aren’t trying to limit writers to these emotions, but you can use their prompts or let them tickle your imagination to develop something on your own to suit your purpose.

Each emotion is defined and then dissected into several components:

  • Physical Signals
  • Internal Sensations
  • Mental Responses
  • Cues of Acute or Long-Term [Emotion]
    • and what it May Escalate To [cross-referenced with other emotions in the book]
  • Cues of Suppressed [Emotion]

Under each component is a list of several descriptive phrases.

Taking a random emotion from the book, here’s an example for the emotion Determination.

Definition: firm intention on achieving a goal; decisiveness

Physical Signals:  pushing up one’s sleeves

Internal Sensations: increased internal temperature and heartbeat

Mental Responses:  active listening

Cues of Acute of Long-Term Determination: muscle strain

May Escalate to: Hopefulness, Confidence

Cues of Suppressed Determination: meaningless gestures (scrutinizing cuticles, checking for split ends)


Now let’s put theory into practice. I’m going to give you an example from one of my WIPs. I am wanting to convey the emotions of a young woman.

First Draft:

“Would you like to join us, Marie?”

She blinked in surprise at the question. But she detected the way Ms. Greer’s warm smile and gaze turned frosty, even if Jack couldn’t from where he stood.

“Uh…ah, no thanks. I, um…I bought my lunch…just in case.”

Ms. Greer’s smile warmed again.

“Are you sure?” He tilted his head.

Marie blinked. Was he trying to get her to go? That couldn’t be right.


Notice any repetition? What about the situation? Do you have an idea what is going on? Does it pull you in at all? Now read the scene after I took a little help from what I found under “Desire” in The Emotion Thesaurus:


Revised Draft:

“Would you like to join us, Marie?”

Both of them looked at her now, and Marie’s mouth went dry and her stomach knotted. Being invited to lunch by the object of her desire—what more could she want? But Ms. Greer’s warm smile and gaze suddenly turned frosty. Even if Jack couldn’t tell from where he sat, the minute change registered on Marie’s seismometer. She’d give it a Richter measurement of 2: strong enough to pick up if you were sensitive, but ignored by most.

“Uh…ah, no thanks. I, um…I bought my lunch.”

Ms. Greer’s smile warmed again.

“Are you sure?” Jack tilted his head.

Marie lifted her eyebrows. Was he trying to get her to go? That couldn’t be right.


Marie’s emotional physical cues of desire (inarticulate) also mixed in with emotional physical cues for nervousness (dry mouth, knotted stomach).

I’m not suggesting that you should refer to The Emotion Thesaurus every time you need an emotion, but I do recommend having it on hand when you’re feeling stumped and don’t have the opportunity to people watch for inspiration.



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