How to Write Complex Emotions
Many authors struggle to convey complex emotion in their characters. Everyone knows what emotions are, but few know how they work. Looking at them from a technical aspect might give insight into how to write them.
An emotion is a mental state. Through your nervous system and chemical changes such as hormones rushing through your body, your mental state changes. We use emotions to help deal with the things we encounter in daily life. They give us clues as to what someone might be thinking or feeling. And the older we become, the more complex our emotions become.
Related to emotion but not quite the same are:
- Feeling; which is a subjective representation of emotion. We can sometimes feel irritated because our body is tired, but that doesn’t mean we’re close to getting angry.
- Mood; lasts longer than an emotion. It’s less intense than emotion and often doesn’t have a real reason. Sometimes you just wake up happy, other days feel like the third Monday in a row.
- Affect; this is the experience of a feeling or emotion.
The Big Five
For the purpose of this blog, let’s assume there are five basic emotions. Few people have trouble seeing if a person feels any of these; joy, sadness, anger, fear, disgust. It’s not a coincidence that these are the five head figures in Inside Out! Let’s go over them and see why your characters need those emotions.
The easiest one is joy. Happiness is a confirmation that your character feels good, and that usually has to do with the people around them. It’s a big, bright blob of positive reinforcement for everyone and everything around.
When your character’s pet dies, they lose a loved one, break up, or the final season of their favorite TV show turns out to be shite, they feel sad. The sadness is an acknowledgment of how they lost something good. They will need time to process their sadness before they can move on. For example, having your MC break up with their long-term partner only to have them dating again a week later won’t help them come across as relatable.
Emotionally repressed characters often don’t want to show vulnerability (often displayed as tears or grief) and then lash out at people trying to help them. Having your characters avoid sadness often leads to covering it up with fear and anger. That already sounds like complex emotions — because they influence each other.
Even in our language, we assume anger is bad and uncivilized. When a character gets angry, we describe it with phrases and sayings like, ‘he flew into a fit of rage’, ‘she burst into flames’, ‘they stormed off’, ‘I lost it.’
I’m here to say: Leave anger alone!
Anger is my favorite emotion to write. It helps my characters establish boundaries. It helps them realize when someone has crossed a line, when they are annoyed, or irritated, or feel unheard, when they feel left out—any time they are unhappy about their situation. Using a healthy measure of anger, they can make themselves heard.
Especially anger is shoved away as a negative emotion. When your character refuses to talk about a problem, they might end up with an ever-increasing amount of anger that will lead to an outburst. Your characters are allowed to have a bad day or be annoyed and show that. Anger comes in many forms and can help create more complex emotions. For exampl,e have your character try and go against their anger.
Another emotion that gets cast as the bad guy way too often is fear. Whenever your MC is in trouble, fear helps them get out. Their muscles tense, ready to run or duck for cover. All of their energy is put into survival, no matter if that’s a flight, fight, or freeze response.
Humans use fear to realize they are in danger. Without it, your MC might try to pet a bear cub. They could see that giant rolling boulder heading their way as a fun game. Whenever they remember something scary, that’s meant to avoid getting into a similarly threatening situation again. However, when that reminder gets too intense, your character could develop a phobia.
Whenever you smell something awful, your face scrunches up. The same happens when your MC witnesses a particularly horrifying scene. Their brain releases hormones that warn their bodies to stay away from whatever triggers the reaction. Everyone responds differently to different situations, but disgust is very easy to recognize on someone’s face. So next time your character sees someone react with disgust to a whispered comment, they are bound to recognize it. Sometimes the mere memory of a taste or smell can trigger that scrunch. (Let’s be honest, almost everyone has a friend who went too far on tequila that one night.)
How to use this in your writing
The reason we call those five emotions basic is that we can blend them. Like with paint, we can combine them to form more complex emotions. Even if you don’t use the exact word, knowing the emotion your character feels helps describe the mood for your scenes. The best tool for blending emotions is the emotion wheel.
A key aspect of the emotion wheel are the three rings. In the center, you can see the basic emotions. When you write about your character being angry, the situation is often clear. They were betrayed, or someone failed to do as promised. At other times, you might want to specify the anger. For example, when your character is plotting revenge, they might feel humiliated because of what happened, or they feel distant towards their victim because their long-time friendship has ended. That’s where the complexity comes in: the emotion is based on more than just one feeling and it forces the character to deliberate on the complex emotions.
Even more subtle versions of the basic emotions are represented in the third ring. When your character feels sad about losing their love interest, at first they will feel grief. It’s relatable, and it’s specific. But after a while, those feelings of grief will lessen as they are giving their sadness a place. From there they will move inwards and they could feel depressed on anniversary dates. They could feel hurt when other people forget their love interest was ever a thing, or they feel lonely when they see other couples walking around. The key here is that the sadness lessens. From their very specific emotion flows a set of new emotions, and as even those lessen, they might start to feel interested in finding someone else. They will move across the wheel and feel happy again.
A piece of common writing advice is to be specific; if you’re struggling to nail down emotions, get into that third ring as much as you can. When you’re looking for more variety, google some synonyms of the words on the third ring.
What to be mindful of
As with a lot of things, don’t overdo it. When your MC is screaming at their mother for buying the wrong color of apples, you saturate the story with emotions before you get to the good bits. What then happens when they meet their idol?
To combat this, it helps to assign a number from 1–10. How intense is the situation for your MC? How much more intense do you plan on things becoming towards the end of your book? But also, how intense does this rank compared to what your MC has experienced so far?
The age of your characters is also important to take into consideration. Small children might be inconsolable when their goldfish dies, while teenagers have trouble pinpointing an accurate intensity to a situation. Adults probably need more than that to show an emotional response in front of their coworkers. In a future blog, I’ll go into depth about the emotional development of children and how that impacts adults.
Emotions are hard to deal with for the most well-versed adults. Something can always catch you off-guard and have your characters respond less than in-control. They are also what sets humans apart from other mammals. The key message here is that complex emotions occur when you blend them, and when characters respond to their emotions.
Stay tuned for more blogs about emotions. Speaking of emotions, you can find Madeline Pine and Saskia Brakenhoff sharing their own on Twitter. Also, have you signed up for our Newsletter? That’s the place to go to get the latest RedPenpals news, like how Saskia is starting her own editing business! It’s also where you can hear about Pine’s latest publication adventures.