Finding Out How Your Characters Feel Using An Emotion Journal

As readers, we all know a character’s emotions can make or break a story. Emotions are what connects us as humans and they are also what connects us to fictional characters.  Last week I talked about using The Emotion Thesaurus to find fresh ways for your characters to express their feelings, but what if you have no clue how they feel? Are they mad, afraid, happy, all of the above? This where an emotion journal can be indispensable.

In short, an emotion journal is a log of experiences you’ve had that you record using these steps:

1. Write down all the things you feel at the time of the event

2. On a scale from 1% – 100%  rate how strong the emotion is

3. Briefly explain why you’re having that emotion.

4. A week or two later, repeat the same process for the same event. Re-rate your emotions and write  a short explanation on why you feel different.

Below is an example of what your emotion journal might look like.

Event: Car accident

Emotion When it happened Explanation A couple of weeks   later Explanation
Surprised 100% I didn’t see her turning the corner 50% I’m still surprised that the accident happened, but less   so. Car accidents happen daily.
Angry at myself 90% I should have seen her coming 10% Accidents happen. I’m only human.
Angry at the other driver 70% She should have seen me coming 10% Accidents happen. She’s only human
Nervous 100% This is my spouse’s car. They’re going to kill me 0% My spouse wasn’t mad. They were actually more relieved  that I was okay.
Annoyed 85% I can’t even get the other driver’s information because   all she can do is cry 10% She was young and a new driver. I might have done the same   as a teenager.
Stressed 70% This is my spouse’s car. They’re going to kill me 100% My whole back-end is totalled, with the age of the car, it   isn’t worth repairing.
Thankful 0% 90% I’m glad no one got hurt.
Excited 0% 80% My spouse and I decided to get a new car

So why take the time to write down how you feel both when the event just happened, as well as a couple of weeks later? You should write down both because the way you feel at the time of the event and the emotions you have after some time has passed are often very different. For instance, in the above example emotions like annoyed and angry fade to almost nothing, while new emotions like thankful and excited emerge. You can also have the same emotions, but for different reasons (see stressed).

Keep in mind that using an emotion journal doesn’t mean that your characters have to be in the exact same situation you were. The purpose of the journal is to help you start building a foundation for your character’s emotions.  For example, you went for a medical test because the doctor had concerns. How you felt while you were waiting for the results could be applied to a character in another waiting situation. A criminal waiting for a verdict, a teenager waiting for their crush to call etc. Of course, the emotions in all these situations will vary, but being able to relate to your characters is always a great start! No matter how small the relation.

Did your car break down? Write about it. Did you get a promotion? Write about it. Did your best friend win the lottery? Pray that they share and then, you guessed it, write about it!

How do you keep your characters’ emotions real?


7 thoughts on “Finding Out How Your Characters Feel Using An Emotion Journal

  1. Great post, Sarah. I always think I’m going to remember exactly how I felt about something. Of course, when time passes and the emotions fade, so does the memory. Keeping an emotional journal is a great idea. (I just don’t know if I’m disciplined enough to do it 😉 )

    1. Getting in to the routine of writing in it frequently is definitely tough. I find it helps to jot down quick notes in small note pad or your phone during the day and then set aside 10 minutes every night to expand upon what you wrote 🙂

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