Writer’s Notebook : Using Physical Appearance and Environmental Changes To Show a Character’s Emotional State

pablo (1)Sometimes our physical appearance is based on our emotional state. In writing you often hear “show, don’t tell.” Using a character’s appearance is one way to show the inner thoughts of a character.

For example, perhaps you have a character who is usually clean and pristine. Now he goes to work in wrinkled clothes. He has not shaved in a week. One would conclude something has changed in this character’s life. Maybe through a bit of dialogue we learn his mother passed. The drastic change tells us he took it hard. No need for your character to say “I’m heartbroken.”

Another way to show one’s emotional state is to show a change in one’s personal space. That same guy who dresses impeccably would not have his expensive clothes scattered all over the floor. But now you go to his home and you see a pile of sweats in the corner. His desk is messy. You smell an odor.

But what if our character has experienced a big life change and wants to give the appearance of holding it together? The changes may be subtle, but they still occur.

Let’s take a woman who broke up with her boyfriend and does not want her friends to think she can’t move on. Maybe she deletes pictures of the two of them together from her social media profiles. But she hides pictures of their last vacation in a drawer in her night stand. When her friends leave she looks at them. Or she re-reads old text messages.

Everyone around her thinks she has gotten over the breakup. But the viewer sees she is still in love with this man. She does not have to say it.

You can use this technique to show a positive emotional state. Maybe a woman who hid from mirrors places a decorative full length mirror in her bedroom. She has built confidence in herself, no longer afraid of her own reflection.

A greedy person who once judged people by what they possessed or their social status might give away a great bit of his possessions. Or perhaps he will eat at a small mom and pop place instead of a fancy restaurant, and enjoy it.

A parent who was once ashamed of her child now has report cards on the refrigerator and drawings at her cubicle.

All of these decisions are a reflection of a change in values or psychology. As our minds change our appearance and environment evolve to reflect that.

Notice also that people who dress a particular way receive different treatment in different atmospheres. A person in a long gown at a black tie event would not get the side eye. At a night club she might. What about someone who wears expensive jewelry to a women’s shelter. How do we alter our appearance to for in or stand out? How are we treated if we refuse to assimilate?

Homework: Observe how a change in values has resulted in a physical change in your life or the life of someone you know.

Observe people you do not know. What do you perceive about them based on their appearance? Do you think your judgement is fair? Is her attire it cultural? Is it inappropriate, even disrespectful?


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