"How do you write character emotions and thoughts in a novel? Do you write reaction before action?"
- Rebecca Anne Dillon, Wolverhampton, UK
Character emotions and thoughts lie at the very heart of good fiction. They are what make characters in a novel human, and without thinking thoughts or experiencing emotions you might as well populate your fiction with robots.
How do you present characters' emotions in the writing?
In a nutshell, with honesty.
Whenever a character undergoes an experience in a novel, you - the writer - need to slip inside their skin and try to feel what the character would feel.
Then simply record those thoughts and feelings as accurately and as concisely as possible.
The key to doing this successfully is to not resort to clichés and stock responses. These are the things which probably come immediately to mind - and they are probably inaccurate.
Let's say that a fictional character undergoes the experience of falling in love at first site. How does this emotion manifest itself in the writing?
Well, maybe. Never having personally experienced love at first sight, I couldn't say for certain. I have a good imagination, though, and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't feel any of the stock responses above. Even if I did believe that the clichés were accurate, I would certainly try to find a more original emotions and thoughts for the character in my novel to experience.
Suppose this character is sitting in his car at traffic lights. He's about to light a cigarette when he sees a woman cross the street in front of him and it's love at first sight. He watches her awhile then has to drive on when the cars behind start honking him.
Normally, he would give the drivers behind the middle finger in the rearview mirror (he's that kind of character), but today he doesn't. He lights his cigarette with the car lighter, shakes it twice, and tosses it out the window.
(Actually, that's not totally original. I read a similar thing in a novel once - can't remember which one - so I couldn't use it in my own fiction. But it demonstrates what I'm talking about: presenting character emotions not in an obvious or expected way but with both originality and believability.)
I'm not sure what you mean by the "reaction before action" part. If you mean should a character react emotionally to an event before acting, then the answer is probably yes. For example, if Character A punches Character B in a novel, Character B will first react emotionally to what has just happened - by feeling shock, perhaps - and then react physically, quite possibly by punching Character A back!
Hope that helps,
P.S. Emotions are expressed by a character in an indirect way. If they are angry, for example, they might demonstrate this by kicking the cat (or whatever).
Thoughts (where we hear what is going on inside a character's head) are obviously a far more direct way to tell the reader how they feel inside. You can learn how to handle thoughts in the article on Interior Monologue.