Monday, May 29, 2017

Let's Look at Emotions

by Linda Rodriguez

Aristotle, the great philosopher of art, said that the emotions are: anger, friendship, fear, shame, kindness, pity, indignation, envy or jealousy, and love. In the 20th century, Paul Ekman, a psychological researcher, identified six basic emotions: fear, anger , happiness, sadness, disgust, and surprise. Researchers atGlasgow University have recently challenged these lists, claiming that there are only four basic emotions—happiness, sadness, fear, and anger—based on analysis of facial expressions across cultures, genders, and ages. Every emotion is some mixture of these, as with the primary colors on a color wheel with so many others in between in varying admixture.

Writers, of course, prefer to work with many more than those four basic emotions. The important thing for writers about emotions is that they come from the limbic part of the brain, not the conscious, logical part, and they can often sideswipe us, taking us unaware and prompting us to do things we would not normally do. Also, emotions motivate most of what we do in life. Behind almost anything important that we do lies at least one emotional motivation and often a complex of emotions. And, in turn, everything we do, everything that happens to us, triggers an emotional reaction that then may motivate another action on our part, so that our lives become a chain of emotional motivations and consequences.

Often writers think that the secret of an exciting book is the dramatic plot events that happen in the course of the story. Dramatic events are important to an exciting story, of course, but they're only part of that story, the extremely visible part. The greater but often less visible part of the story, like the unseen vast bulk of an iceberg that is what really kills the ships, is the emotions causing and resulting from those actions and events. Dramatic actions and events are not enough on their own to hold a reader's interest.

In Lord of the Rings, Sam's dogged devotion to Frodo and fear of what's happening to his friend and Frodo's fear of what the Ring of Power is doing to him and his battle with the lust for power, greed, and selfishness that the ring engenders in everyone keep us following their journey through dreary landscape with the same passionate interest that we give to the flashy, magical duel between the sorcerers, Gandalf and Saruman, and the pageantry and dramatic battles of the horse warriors of Rohim. And even those horse warriors draw us in with the emotions of Éowyn, the dutiful niece and sister who longs for the life of a warrior rather than that of a wife and mother and who tragically and hopelessly falls in love with Aragorn, who has long ago bonded with the elf princess, Arwen. If you examine the books you've loved, you will find that emotions drive all those dramatic actions and events.

As writers, if we're fully aware of this underlying iceberg of emotion, we can use it to control the pace of our story, to vary and build up the dramatic tension. We can also use character emotions to draw the reader into our books. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner discusses the importance of creating for the reader what he calls "a vivid and continuous dream." The goal of every writer is to entice the reader into a dream world and to keep her there for the duration of the story. The bridge for the reader into your story dream world is emotion, that non-logical aspect of humanity that pervades everything we do. If you can make a character's emotion real on the page, the reader will connect to it and follow that character's journey, partaking of it as if it were her own. Brain research shows that, when we read fiction, we experience everything we read within our own brains as if we were actually doing and living through those events and learn from that vicarious experience as we would if it had been real. It is emotional connection and identification which allows us to do this.

Linda Rodriguez's Plotting the Character-Driven Novel, based on her popular workshop, and The World Is One Place: Native American Poets Visit the Middle East, an anthology she co-edited, are her newest books. Every Family Doubt, her fourth mystery novel featuring Cherokee campus police chief, Skeet Bannion, will appear in autumn, 2017. Her three earlier Skeet novels—Every Hidden Fear, Every Broken Trust, and Every Last Secret—and her books of poetry—Skin Hunger and Heart's Migration—have received critical recognition and awards, such as St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices & Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” published in the anthology, Kansas City Noir, has been optioned for film.

Rodriguez is past chair of the AWP Indigenous Writer’s Caucus, past president of Border Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime, founding board member of Latino Writers Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of International Thriller Writers, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, and Kansas City Cherokee Community. Visit her at


  1. External conflict is handled through the plot. The antagonist often provides the motivation to change. Emotions often serve as the mechanism that allows readers to understanding the motivation for the internal conflict. This is especially useful if the emotion felt seems at odds with the situation.

    ~ Jim

  2. The image of drawing a reader in to the writer's story dream is very appealing. what a fabulous test of a well written story, for writers or readers.

  3. What a realization to learn that plot isn't the only driver in a story, that plot works in tandem with a character's emotions.

  4. Gardner's "vivid and continuous dream" is such a great analogy to what we're trying to do and what happens when we fall wholeheartedly into a great book.
    Speaking of great books, the Eowyn subplot in Lord of the Rings is so emotionally rich, isn't it? As the kids say, it has all the feels ;)

  5. I often get emotionally involved in my own stories when I'm murdering a character, and sometimes it's not the character so much as for the murderer who feels he/she must do this, or even more for the families of the victims or the murderer. What I like to read is the comments
    my two Guppy critique partners make on my chapters sometimes saying they laughed out loud, or even got teary eyed at some scenes. Today I'm listening on NPR music and poetry for Memorial Day and just listening to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" sung by a beautiful choir had me teary eyed.

  6. Linda, Thank you for another excellent blog about writing.

  7. Excellent points, Linda. Thank you. One of the criticisms I received for my first manuscript was that I needed some emotion. How did the main character feel or react in a situation. For a new fiction writer, that was a hard thing for me to incorporate. It felt so personal. But I'm learning.

  8. Yes, Jim, emotions can be vital for explaining uncharacteristic actions.

  9. Kait, I think so, too. Gardner was one of the 20th century's great American novelists, and his books on writing are must-reads.

  10. Margaret, yes, it makes a huge difference, doesn't it?

    Shari, it was always one of my favorite parts of the book--and then the way it ties into the main plot's climax with the King of the Nazgul and her "I am no man!" Masterful!

  11. Warren, thanks for your kind words.

    Grace, I'm teaching a class in using emotion to heighten dramatic tension, and believe me, it's hard for just about everyone. But it is important.

  12. My Memorial Day was very busy, but I needed to comment on your post. When I read Donald Maas's book on bringing emotion into the story, I got really depressed. His exercises required going back and sifting through the emotions of your life, resolving them, and as an author, serving as a cheerleader for your readers. That just can't be me. I was so depressed. You held my hand, and after reading this post, I feel much better about writing emotion.

    When I first started writing, I made my stories much too personal, which isn't necessary or professional. If you get famous and someone writes a biography of you, it would be of great help to them to be able to trace your emotional life through your fiction. But I don't think any of us want to be that transparent. We can use aspects of our lives to create our fiction.

    I know your post was the result of my request for you to create a course for the SinC Guppy chapter that exposes how you create physical, mental, and emotion tension that results in pulling together those threads to create an explosive/dynamic finale. Thank you so much for creating the course. It has been very hard for those students, which makes me feel better about my reaction to Maas's book. Their hardships in class serve as a reminder to me that it's just not me. Everyone has problems dealing with emotion. Thank you!

  13. Elaine, I think part of the problem is that most of us are not real conscious of how emotions are influencing and directing our own lives. We go through life, oblivious to the ways our hidden emotions are guiding most of our decisions. Trying to bring emotions out of the shadows in which they usually hide is just plain hard.