Sometimes it can be wrongly assumed that portraying emotion in fiction is a case of saying ‘I feel’ and if a character doesn’t say how they feel then they don’t feel. This is not the case in real life where a person can be feeling a huge array of things without saying anything. For example, do you only feel love for your partner when you say ‘I love you’? Do you have to be thinking about that love to love? As previously discussed emotion can be found in the space a writer leaves, even in characters we might assume didn’t feel emotion.
For example a character might say that they don’t love someone when their actions say they do, a common plot in romance stories. Similarly a person might say they love a person when they don’t, which appears a lot in classic literature where a man is trying to seduce a wealthy woman for her fortune or vice versa. There can even be instances where the characters are unsure or oblivious to their own emotions but the reader can infer them through their actions, another staple of romantic fiction.
Think of the classic film moment where the two leads lean in for a kiss but pull away or are interrupted. Neither one says ‘I’m falling in love with you’ but the audience knows that they are. The same is true of prose where the interrupted lovers often appear, or the raised weapon stopped before it could kill someone because the owner can’t do it, or the moment of indecision before saving someone. These are oft used moments in fiction where the reader infers something about the characters feelings through their actions without them saying, ‘I’m conflicted about this person but I couldn’t live with myself if I let them die.’
Not all moments have to be as dramatic or obvious as those, it could something as small as the touch of a hand, passing the salt before it’s asked for or a choice of phrase. A writer has to observe people around them to see how they behave when they interact with people they like and don’t like and what can be determined by their actions and speech without them explicitly stating something. People have a lot of little ‘tells’ that give their feelings away without them verbalising how they feel. Characters should be the same.
This doesn’t mean you can’t have characters say how they feel or debate how they feel but the times when you don’t use it shouldn’t mean there’s no emotion to your characters. Stories would be an awful lot shorter if people simply said how they felt all the time; trust that your readers can understand implications without everything being explained to them and they will find your stories much more satisfying.