Often we assume that to show a character’s emotion we have to focus on the character. We write that her fists are clenched, that he was stunned speechless by her beauty. Or we describe the feeling itself: how anger whirled inside her, looking for an outlet, how he felt a powerful attraction unfurling in his chest.
These are valid techniques, but they’re straightforward, front-door options, and too often they tend toward cliché or generic. If you have five descriptions of anger in your story and they are more or less interchangeable, you’re missing five unique emotional opportunities.
You can take advantage of those opportunities with a method I call the leaf technique: Show your character’s feelings by writing their thoughts about an object or event that is seemingly unrelated. (I use leaves in my examples, but you can choose whatever suits your character and your story.)
The leaf technique slips us in the back way, letting us feel what the character feels in context, without ever explicitly naming the emotion. It pulls the reader into the character’s unique emotional experience, letting the reader feel not just anger or love but the experience of feeling anger or love as that specific character in that specific story moment.
Character Emotion through Leaves
Let’s say it’s spring in my character’s world. The leaves are emerging from their buds. Birds are singing. My character is feeling bitter about life. What does she think about the leaves?
The leaves came out today. It breaks my heart to look at them, all new, innocent, untouched by the ravages of entropy. I think about their future, chewed by insects, spotted by disease, stripped from their twigs by a careless child who hasn’t learned what death is.
So perfect, this leaf, delicate, reaching out into the world in good faith, translucent in the sun of May. What did it ever do to deserve this life?
The character doesn’t say anything about herself here, and yet we learn a great deal about her state of mind and experience of life. She sees the leaves very differently than, say, someone who’s newly in love:
Overnight, the leaves had come out, and even though he knew they had their own schedule, it was easy to pretend they had arrived to celebrate with him, green fireworks exploding all around, flags waving, tiny hands clapping, the birds all aflutter with the news, flying back and forth joyously to relay the story: Michael kissed Johanna! Michael kissed Johanna!
The joy the character feels is explicitly mentioned in this example, but it’s projected into the leaves in a way that brings the emotion to life in the world.
Character Personality through Leaves
A character’s attitude about the leaves can show us not just their emotions but also their whole personality:
Everyone’s talking about the leaves coming out. “It’s so green!” “Look how beautiful!” “The miracle of springtime!” As if it didn’t happen every May, as if the entirety of species on this planet weren’t programmed to grow at all costs. Yes, I see that the tree in my yard has leaves again, just like it did last year and the year before and the year before. And the flowers are blooming, too! Imagine that.
The real miracle is this novel that’s growing under my fingers. It didn’t exist last year. All alone I found it and shaped it and brought it into being. It is utterly different than anything else, but it has all the best elements — risk, love, pathos, poetry.
I should title it “Springtime.” Then maybe people will give it the attention it deserves.
Here the leaves provide an opportunity for the writer to show the character’s sarcasm and also set up a tension between what the world is ooh-ing over (spring) and what the character thinks they should be ooh-ing over (his novel), which indirectly lets the reader glimpse the relationship between the character and the people around him.
Plot through Leaves
The leaf technique can also be used to foreshadow the plot, to set up a scenario parallel to the one the character is about to go through:
The leaves were budding out, emerging after the long barren winter. Alyssa watched them from her room high in the tower. They emerged trustingly, counting on the sun to shine for them, on the earth to supply them with nutrients. They had a role to play, and they would play it, no matter what.
After a long morning sitting motionless by the window, watching them dance in the playful spring breeze, Alyssa began to pack.
Although we know nothing about Alyssa’s story, we can infer from the narrative she creates around the leaves that she, too, has a role to play, and has finally decided to emerge into the world and trust, like the leaves, that she will be able to do what she needs to do.
Leaves over Time
Once you create the tie between emotion and external object, you can use it for the rest of your story as a subtle emotional shorthand. If the newly-in-love character later gets in a fight with his lover, the leaves can hang limp, or cling desperately to their twigs in a storm, and right away we associate the change in the leaves with the change in his emotions. If the bitter character, a few months later, looks up to see the leaves silhouetted against the sky, making a beautiful pattern even with their spots and flaws, we know she’s starting to feel better about the shape of her life.
Leaves in Bullet Points
- The leaf technique adds richness and depth to your character by drawing on their personality and life experience.
- It immerses the reader, giving them the feeling of being in the character’s head.
- It creates a relationship between your character and the world.
- It doubles as setting.
- It adds whimsy or humor by attributing unusual characteristics or experiences to inanimate objects.
- It creates a shorthand that you can use later on, a recurring motif that can show the evolution of the character’s emotions.
The leaf technique makes the emotion you’re writing specific to the character and the scene. It brings to life the way each person experiences the world differently depending on their mood, their personality, and the moment.
The same emotions will come up again and again in our stories (and our lives), but no emotional experience is the same. Use the leaf technique to create a unique emotional experience that will resonate in your reader’s mind.