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:
What are your thoughts? How do you capture emotion’s complexity? How do authors you admire achieve it?
For more help effectively writing your character’s emotions for readers, One Stop for Writers has a whole thesaurus dedicated to different emotions, as well as numerous templates and worksheets to help you become familiar with your character’s emotional range.
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.