Capturing Complex Emotion: A Writer’s Superpower

Our brain is driven by emotion. We may like to think we’re rational beings, applying the rules of logic calmly and sensibly to those little and not-so-little decisions, but our every thought, our whole perspective is colored by emotion. What this means is, that as a writer, you need to convey not just what happens (the action) in your story, but also how this affects your protagonist and how they feel about the events (the reaction). Why? Because that is what your reader is going to connect with. Without emotion, it will be neutral, boring…put down and the remote picked up.

Which seems straightforward…. except emotions aren’t that simple. During the 1970s, psychologist Paul Ekman suggested there are six basic emotions that are universally experienced in all human cultures: happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise, and anger. And in some ways he was right. These six emotions are actually recognized across the globe, across a multitude of cultures, and are even expressed by babies who are blind.

But… (there’s always a but), so many emotions are far more complex and heterogeneous to be fitted neatly into six (or even sixty) categories. Where does humility rest? Where do you slot nostalgia? And what about dolce far niente, the pleasure of doing nothing; or the feeling of ilinx, the excitement of wanton destruction (like throwing a pile of loose papers out the window or deliberately smashing a delicate china cup), or even pronoia, the strange creeping feeling that everyone is out to help you? Emotions can be intense feelings directed at someone or something, they can be a state that is mild (such as annoyed or content), or they can be not directed at anything in particular (as in anxiety or depression). Just as primary colors combine to create rainbows and kaleidoscopes, primary emotions blend to form the full spectrum of emotional experience.

To start with, each separate emotion appears in a variety of forms with great differences between them. There are many types of love or anger or hope. Then there’s emotion’s great sensitivity to personal and contextual circumstances. How a person attributes or understands a certain context will influence what emotion is elicited. Fifty dollars won through good luck could elicit surprise; fifty dollars earned by hard work may elicit pride; and fifty dollars received from a friend when experiencing cheesecake-withdrawal is likely to beget gratitude.

Great writers, the writer we all want to be, understand this complexity and capture it.


They realize the goldmine of emotions is in the detail.

Parents are adept in capturing this. If a mother or father had to describe how Alex feels when told they are moving interstate; they’ll notice the long blink, the shifting of weight, the glance at the teddy sitting on the chair on the other side of the room. What’s more, they can tell you what each of those details mean. They notice the subtleties and nuances of their children because they are invested in noticing. They care. And they pay attention.

And we can use that framework too. No two hugs are the same. No drive to work is identical to the last. No handshake can be replicated exactly. Details are interesting, intriguing, and loaded with emotion. They take the big stuff like fear or love, and tease them out into their levels and layers, where they contrast and where they combine, how they heal and how they hurt.

Consider the manuscript you’re writing right now and ask yourself any of the following:

  • How do you differentiate between the shades of emotion your character is feeling? If they’re scared, how do you convey the depth, the magnitude, the subtleties of that experience?
  • How does your character’s unique perspective create their particular flavor of emotion? How is it different to how you experience it?
  • What are three novel features of the current situation that your character may be experiencing? What is unfamiliar even if what they are doing is familiar? Notice with open-minded interest and incorporate that into your description.
  • And lastly, consider a major turning point in your story. It could be the call to action or the dark night of the soul, or anywhere in between. Brainstorm a list of emotions that scenario could raise in your protagonist. List two or three emotions. Then list a few more. Try to come up with several. Now spend a little time considering their impact and sensations and then crafting them into the scene.

What are your thoughts? How do you capture emotion’s complexity? How do authors you admire achieve it?

And, PSSSST, readers! Tamar has a new book releasing soon that everyone might want to check out. Hook Your Readers will release on October 13th, and you can read about (and preorder!) it HERE.

Tamar Sloan is a freelance editor, consultant and the author of PsychWriter – a fun, informative hub of information on character development, the science of story and how to engage readers.

Tamar is also an award-winning author of young adult romance, creating stories about finding life and love beyond our comfort zones. You can checkout Tamar’s books on her author website.

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20 Responses to Capturing Complex Emotion: A Writer’s Superpower

  1. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 10-11-2018 | The Author Chronicles

  2. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links – Staci Troilo

  3. I’m going through my final beta right now, taking an agent’s advice. She said there should be emotion on every page from the protagonist.

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      That doesn’t surprise me. Emotion is what a reader relates to in a story, it takes right into the more primal part of our brains. Emotions is something we all understand 🙂

  4. Samantha says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful advice, Tamar! Capturing emotion is so darn hard!

    I think you nailed it, though. Every step of the way, you can decide what to describe depending on the tone and mood you want the reader and the character to feel. I guess it’s truly as they say then: It’s all in the details!

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      Capturing emotion is definitely a challenge, Samantha! When I first started writing, I was truly grateful for websites such as Writers Helping Writers which helped me glean ideas and techniques on how to do this 🙂

  5. Glynis Jolly says:

    Tamara, your list of aspects concerning emotion is marvelous. The questions and guidance is going to help me make the rewrite of my WiP much easier.

  6. Jay Hicks says:

    Great post Tamar. Keep them coming. Diving deep has great rewards. I love that from this moment I have a new way of seeing displays of emotion – in people around me, (in myself – yikes), in books, and in my characters. Gold. Thank you. X J

  7. I read somewhere, years ago, that it didn’t happen until the POV character reacts to it. Showing the gradations of that reaction makes for stronger writing.

    Thanks for the reminder! I need to go work on my emotional spectrum.

    And thanks for the new words! That was fun, and I hadn’t heard any of them before. 🙂

  8. Becca and I were just discussing today how many emotions are blends of the primaries, and there are probably unlimited combinations of undiscovered (as in unnamed) ones that are yet to be memorialized by words. I don’t know why, but I find this sort of exciting, that more emotions exist for us to discover. Of course not all will be good ones, but still, in a world so full of innovation it is comforting to believe that not everything has been discovered yet. This is why I love reading the definitions for words in other cultures that we don’t yet have in our own. You feel a kinship because you know exactly how that emotion feels yet never had a word for it.

    Great post!

  9. Thank you for explaining these details so clearly, Tamar. I’ve connected with you on social media. All the luck with your new release.

  10. Paula Cappa says:

    I love how you break it all down. You’re right that no two handshakes are exactly alike. In fiction, when I’m writing, I find that the character’s emotion reflects the history of his or her life. Whatever their experiences have been over the years can make anger more immediate and more intense, or more repressed in swallowing it down into a brooding moment. Thanks for a thought-provoking post today.

    • Tamar says:

      Hi Paula, You’re completely right. I talk about how emotions are filtered in Hook Your Readers. Every emotion is impacted by our history and our perceptions – it’s one reason they are so complex and diverse.

  11. As with all aspects of writing, it’s the details that matter. Characters end up sounding a lot like other characters when we write their emotions by template, with no consideration for individuality. Thanks for the reminder. And congrats on your upcoming release! I hope you sell a gajillion copies 🙂

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      Thanks Becca! I’m excited to share this information with my fellow writers 🙂 And you’re right, details is where we find the diversity and individuality in our characters. They’re the characters readers love and remember.

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