Character Emotions — Part Four

Before I launch into the next emotion on the agenda, I want to pass along a link to a website which provides an interesting look at emotions. Click Here! It provides a good discussion of Plutchik’s Wheel, a tool used to show the various levels of an emotion, from mild annoyance to mindless rage, for example. As I read the article, I thought about how a character might progress through an emotional range before reaching a point which could justify some dramatic action.

I’ve seen Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions rendered a couple ways, including this format suggesting a flattened cone. Draw the petals together in a point, and the scale of emotion grows in intensity as the size of the cone increases. The areas between the petals represent compound emotions.

We’ve all heard that a hallmark of great fiction is the way a character evolves as their story unfolds. The same could be said of a character’s emotional state. A person is unlikely to wake up one morning and decide to murder a co-worker unless something happened previously to trigger the thought. (And yes, I’ve been sorely tempted to snuff out someone’s lights, typically someone in middle management. Fortunately, I never had sufficient motivation to do it. I did, however, conceive a number of brilliant methods for pulling it off. Those will likely show up in my fiction.)

But, back to handling character emotions. This week it’s fear. Of all the many emotions we’re likely to write about, fear is one of the most common. Just consider how many flavors it comes in–everything from cautionary concern to full-on, pants-crapping panic. Use a thesaurus to review the synonyms for it. (See for yourself, right here.)

All too often, when I read the work of my students, too little time is taken to parse out the precise levels of fear their character(s) face. It’s one thing to hear the sounds a house makes as it settles or when the ice maker deposits a fresh batch of cubes; it’s an entirely different thing to see a zombie tearing down your door. Good storytellers will almost always add an intermediate step.

Fear mounts, as pointed out in the Plutchik discussion, and it’s a technique commonly employed in horror, suspense, and thriller tales. For example:

Let’s say your character is a waiter in a restaurant, and thus far his day has offered no challenges. When a strange old lady is seated in his section, he takes her order, but he’s concerned by the furtive glances she casts around her.

The lunch crowd builds, and her order is delayed, so he stops by her table to let her know she hasn’t been forgotten. As he looks into her rheumy eyes rimmed by blood-red glasses, his pulse quickens. She squints at him, her face registering suspicion.

“I asked the kitchen to speed up your order,” he says. She responds with a grimace. There’s something wrong with her, he thinks, then quickly dismisses the notion as silly.

At last, his customer’s sandwich emerges from the kitchen, and he hurriedly delivers it. Though eager to distance himself from her, he asks if there’s anything else he can do. “Refill your tea, perhaps?” She responds with a mumble and a timid poke at her food with one gnarly finger.

He backs away, then halts as she lurches up from the table, her face contorted, and lunges at him with a carving knife, all the while screaming about something wrong with her order.

In this scenario, even as narrowly as it’s painted, there are no clichés. It has enough specificity to drive the scene; it depicts a range of emotion (two, actually, one for each character), and it relies on my personal experience of dealing with testy people.**

Of course, the scene could be more fully developed with additional customers, a cantankerous sou chef, a description of the venue, etc. But the emotional elements, especially the point of view character’s fear, are adequately conveyed. In the process, a mini-tale evolves, and the writer is free to let it fuel a much broader plotline.

Fear can be a great motivator, but taking the time to build it can make the difference between a sale and just another ho-hum story in your drawer.


(**Full disclosure: I’ve never actually been attacked by a customer, but there was one cranky old reader who dressed me down for the way I ended a novel. She demanded a sequel.)

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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7 Responses to Character Emotions — Part Four

  1. dorisreidy says:

    New food for thought for me. Thanks, she said, eyeing him apprehensively.

  2. polinto says:

    My thoughts led me astray. Her furtive glances hinted at an anticipated invasion, but the progression of emotions makes sense.

  3. An-l says:

    I’m trying to absorb as much as my aging brain can handle from each of the character emotion blogs you’ve been writing the last four weeks. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them. I love your fear example this week and have one question, am I the cranky old reader who demanded a sequel. I don’t think so, but it’s a good idea.

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