The top 10 most overlooked emotions


Silk’s Post #66 — It’s New Year’s week, and as everyone who’s ever read a newspaper or magazine, watched a TV talk show, or surfed the web knows … that means it’s the season for holiday-weary writers everywhere to fulfill their obligations to readers and viewers by coming up with “Top 10” lists.

Okay, it’s a bit of a cheat, a cheap filler. Top 10 sports bloopers; Top 10 political gaffes; Top 10 heartwarming stories; Top 10 weather events; Top 10 celebrity break-ups. It’s not really writing, it’s packaging. But let’s face it: people eat it up. The urge to add one’s own picks is practically irresistible.

So I’m giving in to the Top 10 urge. If it’s enough fun, I may even devote all my January posts to Top 10’s for Writers. This week’s Top 10 is a reminder of some perfectly good emotions that I think writers neglect too often when animating their main characters.

EMOTION, to quote the Oxford Dictionary, is “a strong mental or instinctive feeling such as love or fear; a passion, sentiment, sensation.” Wikipedia calls it “a subjective, conscious experience” that is associated with “mood, temperament, personality, disposition and motivation.” 

In the service of the writer’s twin holy grails – TENSION and CONFLICT – we cram in the obvious basic feelings like LOVE, HATE, FEAR, HOPE, ANGER, HAPPINESS, IMPATIENCE, RESENTMENT, DOUBT, and EXCITEMENT. 

But it’s the subtler shades of emotion that help elevate characters from bland and predictable to spicy and complex. Without these grace notes, emotions can come across as cartoon-like as emoticons. Here are some to consider …

1. SCHADENFREUDE – You have to love German literature, so full of capital letters and long, jaw-cracking words for complex states of mind. Schadenfreude is a combination of the words for harm and joy. It describes the “pleasure derived from the misfortune of others,” even those one ostensibly cares about. Everyone feels it sometimes, but nobody admits it. Nice people immediately feel guilty afterwards. Why is this rich source of conflict so underused in commercial fiction? If you’re looking for a character flaw for your overly-saintly protagonist, maybe you should forget those irritating faux flaws like eating crackers in bed and give him a dose of Schadenfreude.

2. EMBARRASSMENT – This is an underrated emotion. It sounds almost frivolous, but is a powerful de-motivator on the fear spectrum. Apparently, fear of speaking in public (stage fright) comes up near the top of many people’s lists of experiences they most wish to avoid. Even seasoned performers have been known to puke before going onstage. In everyday life, it’s amazing what lengths people will go to to avoid embarrassment. Why are we so afraid of ridicule and rejection? Perhaps because it’s a kind of shunning, thrusting us outside the safety of the tribal circle. I’m just guessing here, having absolutely no training in psychology, but I know it’s common, it’s strong, and it creates inner conflict. What more could you ask for as a writer?

3. GENEROSITY and its companions FORGIVENESS and COMPASSION – Generosity makes any character bigger. Sometimes we torture our protagonists so thoroughly that they seem too besieged to feel much generosity, but if you want a relatable character you have to give him a heart. You don’t have to create a do-gooder caricature. Generosity can be demonstrated in the briefest of flashes. When I was a little girl, I remember my Aunt Raggy taking me on a big adventure to New York City to see the natural history museum. We were riding through the Bowery – a terribly down-at-the-heels neighbourhood in those days, populated by what we then called ‘bums’ and now call ‘the homeless’. When we stopped at a light, a ruined looking old man in rags with few teeth and red-rimmed eyes banged on our window. I was scared and repulsed. My Aunt looked at him with sympathy and a smile. “The poor soul,” she murmured to me. In that one moment I learned everything I’ve ever needed to know about generosity of spirit.

4. LONGING – We’re always told our characters, especially our protagonist, have to have a ‘want’ that drives them forward towards a goal. It’s critical to make that ‘want’ explicit and front-of-mind. But if you want to create more depth, add some longing as a deeper, back-of-mind ‘want’ that persists. The presence of a yearning desire, a longing that may be unfulfillable in the literal sense, adds a kind of haunting texture and makes characters more memorable.

5. STUBBORNNESS – There’s a whole cluster of head-in-the-sand emotions that relate to stubbornness: skepticism, reluctance, pride, fear of change, unwillingness to admit that something previously believed is wrong. Doesn’t everyone have a little bit of this in them? Well, so can a protagonist. A character’s stubbornness can be a very handy obstruction to add complication and conflict to a plot, or a relationship. It doesn’t have to be reserved for hopeless mules. It can be used as a hurdle to be overcome in a positive character arc.

6. ADVENTUROUSNESS – Perhaps the opposite of #5, this doesn’t necessarily mean taking up mountain climbing and bungee jumping. There’s a kind of adventurous open-mindedness that prompts people to try new foods, seek new kinds of friends, explore new knowledge, and maybe once in a while do something a little wild and crazy. However, it’s as easy to turn the adventurous character into a cartoon as it is to turn the stubborn character into one. If you’re writing an epic, this is fine – otherwise it may be unhelpful. However, adding an adventurous streak is one way to help a character find a bit of trouble, which is always a good thing. Because then they have to get out of it.

7. JOY – This is a word that seems to have been somewhat captured by religion (wasn’t “Joy to the World” the first thing that popped into your mind?), and that’s kind of a shame. For me, joy is deeper, more exuberant and less passive than happiness, and it does have a spiritual tinge to it. For my money, a character’s emotional range is incomplete if they can’t manage to demonstrate some joy and some sorrow – or at least I want to know a protagonist is capable of feeling them, even if they stay in the background of the story. These are grown-up emotions, yin and yang, a natural part of life’s experience.

8. INTUITION – This emotion is a writer’s playground. It should probably be used thoughtfully unless you’re writing in a genre like paranormal, but I think a whiff of the ‘sixth sense’ – animal instinct – brings a whole intriguing dimension to both plot and character. While it’s a writing sin to use an unexplained ‘hunch’ to get out of a plot jam, there are lots of tasty treats in the intuition basket that can add flavour to a story, be it visceral or ethereal.

9. DISDAIN – Another word that’s somewhat fallen out of favour, but the meaning: “to regard or treat with haughty contempt; despise” still paints a rich picture of a character. This is a complex emotion that combines a sense of superiority, entitlement, judgement, fear of the ‘other’, and a lack of empathy. Hmm, makes you wonder why we aren’t citing it more often, given today’s ever-widening gap between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.

10. WONDER – This is the return-to-childhood emotion. What we feel when we stop pretending that we know it all, and give in to our sense of awe at something inexplicably impressive. It’s what makes us say “wow!” For me, it goes hand-in-hand with adventurousness and joy. I love the idea of using this emotion to humanize a hard-boiled character in an unexpected plot turn. When a character who’s slightly cynical or world-weary experiences wonder, it really amplifies the point that something special has happened.

Given that emotions are the fuel that gives light and heat to conflict and tension, every story depends on them at a deep level.

What emotions would you put on this list? Which ones have you used? Is your palette of emotions wide enough for your story? Complex and subtle enough?

And, yes, I’ve completely skipped the really hard challenge regarding characters and emotions here: how to convey their feelings through actions, rather than spending endless, brutally boring, pages inside their heads. Maybe that’ll be my next list?

Joyful New Year to you!

10 thoughts on “The top 10 most overlooked emotions

  1. Silk, great post. You might want to check out this book…Happy New Year! Della

    The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression

    Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi”

    • Thanks Della and happy 2014! Hope you’re still writing up a storm. Would love to catch up and compare notes in the new year. Thanks for the great book recommendation, I’ll order it today.

  2. Dear Silk, your #66 is put very user-friendly and helps me recognize truths, some of which were known but filed “back there” in my mental archives. I save very few of the many online articles received daily, but many of yours are among those to remind the writer in me what’s what. A Happy new year to you and yours!

    • Thanks for your kind comments Linda. One thing that keeps me writing (both books and blogs) is that I’m not always aware of what I know until I have to write it down. So it functions as a kind of self examination, mining for dormant insights — and I surprise myself sometimes. I think everyone has a lot more wisdom in their heads than they’re conscious of. Writing forces you not to take it for granted (or at least that’s how it works for me).

  3. Those are great emotions to consider adding to our characters. And this is an area where I fear I’m still falling short with my characters and story. I think I’m revving up the needed tension and conflict. But am I fleshing out the characters enough? Will a reader care enough about them? Those are questions I still can’t answer. But you’ve given me some good ideas to consider here!

    • Thanks for your always thoughtful comments JM! I agree that it’s such a jigsaw puzzle to fit the characters and plot together and come up with a story that really moves readers. I’m starting to think that my role as author is more to animate characters (e.g., make them move) than to flesh them out (e.g., describe them and their feelings). Which leads to the biggest challenge of all (except maybe structure, which I’m still hopeless at) … conveying characters’ personalities, thoughts and feelings primarily through their actions (including body language). Quite a dance to choreograph!

  4. Silk, that’s an excellent list and a great reminder that we need to pay more attention to the sub-emotions – which is what your list really is. If we only stick to the major ones, like love, hate, etc… we are missing opportunities to endow our characters with much more complexity and depth. If we have the skill to use these more subtle emotions, we add quality to our writing and enjoyment to our readers. I especially like your addition of ‘Schadenfreude’, which is indeed complex and difficult to convey in a story. But it’s powerful if you manage to use it instead of simply writing about jealousy, which is the more common emotion. A clever twist of the pen! Thanks for sharing this useful list.

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