As a writer, it is easier to describe strong, simple emotions like fear and joy, and it is easier to create a resonance between your character and your audience with strong emotions. Complex emotions, such as regret, disappointment, or ambition, are harder to describe, but can be much more worthwhile in giving depth to a character portrait.
Take an emotion like regret. Broken down, it is sadness, anger, self-pity, disappointment, and longing, all mixed together into a tangle … and it is your job as the author to untangle that mess for the reader. Can you SHOW such a complex emotion without actually using the word ‘regret’? There are several writing techniques that can assist you in this regard.
“Men become cannibals of their own hearts; remorse, regret, and restless impatience usurp the place of more wholesome feeling: everything seems better than that which is.”
Mary Shelley, Lodore – also published as The Beautiful Widow
First step to is to understand the emotion. I have to admit that I find Scott McCloud’s Making Comics can assist me at this point. McCloud is an illustrator and artist, but his breakdown of the underlying emotional palette to feelings like betrayal and horror is pure genius. I don’t always agree with his palette (I find it oversimplified, but then it is designed for comics), however it is a fabulous jumping off point. As the writer, you should know and understand best what your character is experiencing, so break it down.
Now, evoke that all that complex emotion using the five senses, the setting, and the actions of your character. For me, regret might be evoked by faded roses; the use of sepia tone in the light of the setting; tears and the metaphors of tears like pearls or rain; the breaking of a favourite cup or plate; the smell of mothballs lingering in the lace of unused wedding dress.
So, a scene meant to impart our character’s sense of regret might have:
• sadness, conjured by the sound of rain on a window pane,
• anger, symbolized by smouldering embers in a fireplace,
• self-pity, represented by your character looking through a photo album and weeping,
• disappointment, provoked by the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle,
• longing, evoked by a handful of travel pamphlets on the coffee table.
“In history as in human life, regret does not bring back a lost moment and a thousand years will not recover something lost in a single hour.”
Stefan Zweig, Stellar Moments in Human History
Be subtle. Our character might not be feeling a passionate regret. The stronger the emotion, the more you can make such emotions overt. And yet you should remember that, sometimes, watercolours are more effective than neon lights.