Five Ways To Give Your Characters Emotional Depth

Creating a character isn’t all physical description and heartbreaking backstory.

Well, a lot of it is, but it’s not just that. You need to round out that tall, dark-haired beautiful orphan with some emotional depth. The kind that will keep your readers turning the page and recommending your stories.

They’ll do this because they’re invested in your books. And they’re invested because they relate to the characters. They might not be tall, dark-haired, beautiful or an orphan, but they know how it feels to miss family, to never find the right pant length, or to be judged by their looks.

Creating a relatable connection to universal struggles is key and ensuring your characters have emotional depth is the metal that forges that key.

Five Ways To Give Your Characters Emotional Depth

Don’t Say Emotions

Emotions are something we all feel, unless you’re a serial killer.

Writing “She was sad” gets the point across, but before you include that tiny sentence in your word count and call it a day, think about whether you want your reader to know your character is “sad” or if you want them to feel that your character is “sad”.

Feeling is the response you want. Not only does it separate you from the serial killers, but it’s what’ll gain your characters reader empathy. For example…

Jenny felt sad, resigning herself to staying in bed.

Yeah, the reader will know Jenny is sad, but there’s no connection there.

Jenny’s vision blurred, the lamp on the bedside table melting into a watery mess until she blinked and the tears rolled down to stain her cheeks. With heavy limbs, she wrapped the blanket around herself, letting the thick quilt shape to her bones and cocoon her in the dark where she belonged.

Here the reader can feel that Jenny is sad. If you can’t relate to tear stains, the heavy limbs, and the dark thoughts, if you’re not feeling her sadness, you may be a serial killer, or more likely, I wrote a bad example. Either way, writing about a character feeling an emotion rather than stating the emotion will give you the depth you’re looking for.

Show Off

While your book should contain a good balance of showing and telling, for emotional depth, the more showing you partake in the better.

Just as not saying emotions will garner points with your readers, showing how characters react to events, win or fail will foster that emotional connection. It also gives you the bonus of making your book a more interesting read.

Add Internal Thoughts

This is something I’ve only learned to craft into my writing in the last year, and what a difference it’s made. Including the internal thoughts of characters in your work allows the reader to form a closer bond.

First person writers will find they can do this with ease, but those who prefer to write in the third person (raises hand) will need to work a little Deep POV magic.

By giving the reader access to your characters inner-most thoughts, you’re giving access to them. If your reader has the same thoughts, they’ll see themselves in the character, which is exactly what you want.

Play With Sympathy

When you’re trying to create emotional connections, hitting all the basic emotions helps. Everyone has been sad, angry, scared, happy, etc and will relate to characters mirroring those same emotions. One emotion guaranteed to up the emotional response is sympathy.

Playing with sympathy by infusing it into your MC, or making your villain as unsympathetic as possible, is a sure-fire way to have your characters and readers connect.

If your reader cares for your character, they’ll want to read about them until the last page. If they hate your villain they’ll want to read about them until they get their comeuppance. Work basic emotions, especially sympathy, into your sentences as much as you can and swim in the emotional depth it creates.

Identify The Familiar

While uniqueness is something you’ll want to be part of your book, don’t shy away from believable, relatable, identifiable character traits.

You can still have alien characters and fantasy-filled worlds, just mix those elements with the familiar. You might never be a Queen who loses her Kingdom, but everybody has lost something important in their lives. It’s those relatable problems that’ll encourage your readers to identify with your character’s struggles.

Identifying the familiar and combining it with showing, internal thoughts, basic emotions, and sympathy should help you create that connection, delivering emotional depth.

— K.M. Allan

You can find me on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

40 thoughts on “Five Ways To Give Your Characters Emotional Depth

  1. I really want to give Jenny a hug! 😦 That was such a good description of sadness lol I definitely felt it. When I’m reading, I’ve found that sympathy and empathy play a big role in getting me to care about characters, even if I don’t really “like” them. Great post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Madeline 😊. So glad to hear the example pulled it off. I’m never sure when posting such things. Totally agree with you on the whole sympathy/empathy thing. It’s definitely what gets me to care about characters too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Informative post. The section on sympathy hit home as I’ve been trying to add this to my characters as of late. It is much easier said than done for me, unfortunately. 😫 Thanks for the reminder and push to keep trying.
    Write Fearlessly.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. It’s so important to pull the heart strings. The reader has to feel it. They have to be heartbroken or happy or scared. Whatever it is the writer has to pull it off.

    Another excellent list of reminders. Thanks!!!!

    One more thing: I’m with Madeline. Jenny needs a hug and night out on the town. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That last bit is one that I’ve bungled up a lot in the past. While Will Self’s “I write to astonish” adage is true, so is the reverse – fantasy that misses the elements of human love and human anger is like a brightly painted world made of only cardboard. Well, theoretically, anyway. Thanks for the post!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ruth Miranda

    Very valid points! I’m trying to infuse some sympathy into certain characters, but it’s something I feel I tend to fail a lot…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Right there with you, Ruth. It’s hard to know what’s universally sympathetic. What I think is a sympathetic trait might not come across that way at all to others. It’s all trial and error and hopefully helpful betas 😅.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Spot on as always, Kate! I love this post, and it’s all so true. In my current edit I find myself writing “more internal thoughts needed” in my notes, and you’re so right about the importance of them. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that just because we as the writer understand our character’s inner thoughts and feelings, doesn’t mean the reader will! x

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  7. Awesome advice as usual. It’s something I often need to do on the second edit, noticing where I’ve not put enough feeling in, or where I’m not shown the emotions. I do a special edit now, just to catch these and make sure my characters are more rounded and emotionally deeper.

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