Do you know how your character really feels?

Ocean people

The more I write, the more I realize that recognizing emotional granularity is a skill. Learning to differentiate emotions has a nifty benefit: It’s something you can also use in your personal life.

There are truck loads of research defining the benefits of this skill. Here’s a great New York Times article that explains it really well: Are you in Despair? That’s good.

As the article says:

According to a collection of studies, finely grained, unpleasant feelings allow people to be more agile at regulating their emotions, less likely to drink excessively when stressed and less likely to retaliate aggressively against someone who has hurt them.

A useful tool is an emotion list, such as Robert Plutchik’s emotion wheel, but there are others. Refer to such lists to consider the subtleties and differences. Such small differences can make a big difference in what you write.

Anticipation or joy? Amazement or surprise?

In describing emotional states, I ask:

  • Is John merely annoyed or swept up in uncontrolled rage?
  • Is Michelle apprehensive, terrified, or someplace in between?
  • Is Catherine feeling admiration or love?

When you recognize the difference between frustration and fury, you react to situations with more skill and self-awareness. Those who haven’t developed this skill (aka, many characters), react in broader emotional strokes. It’s like they only have one note to react to all obstacles: a car horn. They may not even realize that they’re over-reacting. And gosh, it’s exhausting.

There are two levels to an emotion in a scene. First, there’s the character’s emotional reaction to the circumstances. But in addition to that, there’s the primary emotion where they live their life. Some people react to everything with anger. Others, fear. A person whose primary emotion is joy, will react to stress with one set of coping strategies. A person coloured by boredom will react to stress using other strategies.

Emotion Wheel

Robert Plutchik’s emotion wheel

Not all characters are lost emotionally.

Emotionally stable characters (aka, wise characters such as wizards, monks or philosophers) inhabit a place beneath the turbulent emotions of life. It is like they are sitting on the bottom of the ocean. They see the emotional waves of the surface, but they recognize them as distractions and don’t pay them any mind. They know that if they go up there, they’ll be caught up in the turbulence. Only when a wise character is the protagonist is she thrown into the waves and just like all characters, works to find her way out of them, back to the serenity of the ocean floor.

The task of “working to find a way out” involves showing how your character develops emotional awareness. As a character grows, they learn how to handle at least one emotion.

STRETCHING EXERCISES

  • When out in public, look at the people around you. Can you tell what they are feeling? What about them is communicating that emotion to you?
  • Ask yourself: What makes one person look angry while another content? Is it the way they walk? What they’re looking at? The furrow in their brow? How they charge forward, full steam ahead?
  • Can you tell what their primary emotion is? The one they automatically go to? What tells you that?
  • For the people who stand out to you, see if you can write a brief description of your findings.

To help you in describing emotions without even leaving your desk, take a look at this Guide to micro expressions.

LOOK IN THE MIRROR

Another way to stretch and grow is to look at your own emotional ups and downs. Here’s a few simple exercises, taken from Zen Buddhist traditions, to help you develop self-awareness:

  • At times throughout your day, try to identify the emotion you’re feeling. If you can, jot them down on a list.
  • Google “emotion list” or visit Wikipedia’s entry, List of Emotions, and see if you can identify where you hang out on the scale.
  • What primary emotion do you think you communicate?
  • Try to pinpoint the emotional range of friends or family.
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