Friday, May 20, 2016

Story vs RPG Part 8: Character emotions

Story vs RPG Series
Story: Elements
Story vs RPG Part 3: Character Information
Story v RPG Part 5: Personality Types
Story v RPG Part 6: Alignment, Morality, and Ethics
Story vs RPG Part 7: Character Needs
Story vs RPG Part 8: Character emotions
Story vs RPG Part 9: Lies - Our characters darkest secrets
Story vs RPG Part 10: Setting - cultures
Story vs RPG Part 11: Pair Dynamics
Story and Game Structure: Storylines
Story vs RPG Part 12: Larger groups - conformity & deviance

If you like this series support it by buying it today for kindle all in one file and without advertisement. Available in most countries that Amazon supports. 

Readers identify with characters through expressed character emotions. In gaming, many times the player's emotions substitute for the character's emotions.

When I was learning about the need for writers show emotions of the characters in stories, this of course assumed that I knew what emotions mean and how to show them. In my daily interactions with neighbors, friends, and even strangers I noticed that different people show different emotions even for the same event, movie, or tragedy.

This is something I did earlier this year.

When the local sports team were one minute from winning a world championship, I walked outside into the dark night and listened. At first a I heard a few shouts. When the minute passed by, suddenly the entire town was bursting with a chorus of chants, curse words, and outbursts. Fans were expressing their emotions, because their team had won - the best in the world.

What are emotions? Why do people experience different emotions? And how can I see a big picture on covering what people experience?

Emotions - a natural state of consciousness caused by an arousal (stimulus) like situations, moods, and others where one experiences a change in physiology, expression, poster, gestures, and strong subjective feelings.

Feelings - are subjective experience of emotion.

Mood - a temporary, low-intensity, and long lasting emotional state.

Affect - experiencing a mood, emotion, or feeling.

What are the ingredients to an emotion?
Stimulus - event or object
Response - includes instinctual reaction including physiological, gestures, and facial expressions; emotional including internal dialogue, dialogue, and reaction, thoughtful reaction, action

Something happens. The team wins the championship. Joy begins to spread through their body. Unable to contain their excitement, they must do something. They get up get up out of their chairs, walk outside, and let out a cheer and scream. "Yeah team! Go team!" They are beyond happy - ecstatic even.

Note: I removed all reference to the team name in order to help let the example go beyond this sport and feelings for this team by opposing team fans. Also it could apply to any championship team in any important sport or competitive activity across the world.

Different experiences, different emotions, same event

Emotions can have a positive or negative influence on characters. Characters have different personalities, ethics, and needs that interpret events differently. Each event has individual meaning to various characters all experiencing that same event.

Lets take a car of a few people driving past a house. One person might remember happy feelings playing with her friends there many summers in the past. Another might remember being afraid of a dog that chased him one evening. And another might be suspicious of someone living there ... because she blames on him the loss an item of hers, the ring that she thinks he stole a year ago, which was given to her by her best childhood friend.

Showing Emotions

Several tools have been created to help out showing emotions, rather than telling. A tool such as Ackerman and Puglisi's The Emotion Thesaurus - A Writer's Guide to Character Expression is a great tool to help show emotions. I have that book, but I wanted to know the underlying reason why people feel different ways - even considering different experiences. Knowing how to show emotion wasn't enough. For this I began looking at the basic emotions. And with these basic emotions,  I looked at the reasons behind them.

Basic Emotions

Several categories of basic emotions have been created.

Robert Plutchik (shown here) and W Gerrod Parrot (shown here) each categorize emotions further. All emotions are categorized and considered degrees of the basic six or eight emotions.

Reasons for Emotions

Most interesting to me and maybe to some others is Plutchik explanation of the reason for emotions.

He explains functions according to purposes which I will change a bit for simplicity sake.
stimulus > evaluation > feeling > behavior > goal
stimulus - event or situation that triggers emotion
evaluation - thinking about what the stimulus can be thought of symbolically
feeling - subjective thinking good or bad and the meaning to the individual; the emotion
behavior - the involuntary behavior that results from the feeling
goal - the function and reason the has caused a reaction

I like how he explains that there are reasons for most emotions. A cause and effect relationship helps explain the basic emotions. If you mix this process with the one I showed earlier the stimulus & response - especially considering the emoted gestures, facial expressions, and physical sensations happening before the evaluation and subjective feeling - emotions come alive with purpose. Especially they come alive when used with tools like lists of emotional responses.

Plutchik's basic eight emotions stimulus and goal.

Joy - gain of valued object; gain resource
Trust - member of one's group; mutual support
Fear - threat; safety
Surprise - unexpected event; gain time to orient
Sadness - loss of valued object; reattach to lost object
Disgust - unpalatable object;  eject object
Anger - obstacle; destroy obstacle
Anticipation - new territory; knowledge of new territory

So how can I use this list.

If in the story something important has been lost - like a person, position, living space, or important item - I need to find some way of showing sadness in the story. Everyone can't be stoic statues. And the greater the importance, the greater that emotion needs to be. It may even be very hard for me to relate to the character that suffered the loss. The character could be a personality type that I don't care for. But still, to that character had something important which is now lost. I need to let that character share and express that emotion in a fitting manner.

What about more complex emotions?

For other more complex emotions, Plutchik shows how they are combined out of the basic emotions which he divides into dyads: primary, secondary, tertiary, and opposites. Here are just a few of those emotions to which I put in parentheses the stimuli.

Love = joy + trust (gained an object + member of one's group)
Submission = trust + fear (member of one's group + threat)
Aggression= anger + anticipation (obstacle + new territory)
Optimism = anticipation + joy (new territory + gain of valued object)

So, if I am writing a situation where submission is the main emotion I want running through a point of view character, by ingraining into the story a threat (or multiple threats) into some member-of-group type situation plays off of the instinctual affectional drives that everyone has to some degree. The threat should be appropriate for the situation. It may be dramatic. Will the character give in to the demands of the group? It could even be a friend, lover, boss, or family member making the demand.

You can see more complex emotions beyond the four that I wrote in Plutchik's theory such as: disappointment, remorse, contempt, guilt, curiosity, despair, envy, cynicism, pride, fatalism, delight, sentimentalism, shame, outrage, pessimism, morbidness, dominance, anxiety, and conflicting emotions.

So in light of what events mean to a character they can react in different appropriate ways. And maybe they react in an unexpected manner because the facts haven't been revealed yet showing why they react in that way.


Readers need emotions in stories. Characters need to differ in the expression of emotions to show that they have individual lives. Knowing who the character is, how they act, and why they act the way they do can help bring out their unique and personal emotions - emotions that readers can identify with.

Next post may be about internal conflict - defense mechanisms. That would serve as a great transitioning out of character and into possibly the topic of plots - or maybe setting first.

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