As members of the human race, we are social beings, and have a huge emotional palette to assist us in interacting with the herd. The emotional palette of a written character should reflect that fact, but most of our emotional interaction is visual; we read emotions using facial cues and body language. This makes it trickier for a writer, as we still have to convey to the reader the emotional byplay that is occurring on the page.
Look at this image of a Steampunk doll. What emotion can you see? Sadness. And how is that sadness being conveyed? The lowered lids over the damp-looking eyes, the pursed lips, the slouched body language created by the pose … all signal the emotion. And yet this is a doll, which can have no feelings except those imposed by the artistry of the doll-maker. As a writer, you have to do a similar process with the characters in your story.
To do this properly, you need to observe how people look when expressing various emotions. But here is a quick and rough guide to the strongest and simplest emotions:
Happiness: a smile creates rounded cheeks that in turn create wrinkles around the outside corner of the eyes. There may be dimples. The eyes may even shut and fill with tears if the character is laughing so hard. The top of the lip may be pulled back to reveal the teeth, but this isn’t an aggressive baring of fangs. The body language should be relaxed, unless the character is shaking with laughter. In a bout of laughter, it isn’t unusual to clutch at something for support, as the effort of laughter weakens the limbs. Laughter is as distinctive as a fingerprint, no two people laugh the same way. I sound like a seal barking, whereas someone else may have a tinkling and ladylike chuckle.
Sadness: a wrinkled forehead, eyebrows pulled together to form a peak, to the point the eyes may be shut. Tears are released from the eye ducts, and the nose will run. The mouth will make a ‘box’ as the corners of the lower lips are pulled down, and the top lip will be pulled down over the teeth. The chin will be pulled out of shape. The throat will be tight, and the rest of the body will be heaving with sobbing. The noise the sad person makes may be a howl, as if in pain.
Anger: the brows lowered over the eyes, but the eyes will be wide, creating the ‘angry’ brow line. The lips will be pulled back as far as they will go to reveal gritted teeth, and that will be deforming the chin. The face will change colour, usually it will redden, but some people go white with rage. The body will be held rigid, with the fists clenching and unclenching. The arms will be held away from the body, to make the person look ‘bigger’. They may even growl.
Of course, there are thousands of emotions. If you want to show them, you have to know their markers, like the curled lip and wrinkled nose of disgust or the tremors caused by fear. Your characters aren’t robots, and you need to prove that by providing them with their own emotional responses in various situations. Remember, what might frighten one person might be an exciting challenge to another. So don’t let your characters all react the same way in a scene.
In the Steampunk literary genre, it is important to make your characters seem as real as possible. They are in a fantastic setting, doing strange things, and encountering bizarre situations, but they are still people. Unless, of course, they’re not. But even an alien or monster should have an emotional palette – only robots have any excuse to be completely emotionless.