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Randy Ingermanson once said that people read books because they want to have an emotional experience. While that’s certainly true of “Twilight”, I think it holds true for all books. Even books about negative characters can be interesting to us because of their emotional content due to what James Scott Bell calls a “‘car wreck’ dynamic”.

Ironically, even though we’ve all experienced many, many emotions throughout our lives, few humans are experts. So, depicting them in our stories can seem an impossible task. However, as with most things, we can learn to be better at emotions.

But where to begin? Emotions are complicated and confusing. Consider these obstacles:

  • Many lists of emotions have been generated, yet no matter how much they overlap, they never quite converge. Some are even in conflict with one another.
  • There is no agreed-upon method to organize emotions. Do emotions resemble a list, a tree structure, or a three-dimensional shape? Can they even be visualized?
  • There is no agreed-upon method to name emotions. What someone calls “Joy” is called “Happiness” by another.
  • As if this weren’t complex enough, there also seem to be levels of intensity to emotions. What is the difference between Affection, Love, and Ecstasy but the level of intensity?
  • Emotions seem to somehow blend together to form new emotions that are distinct from their progenitors.
  • Even Wikipedia, a site that normally excels at harnessing the collective knowledge of the human race, fails to adequately deliver on a comprehensive list and understanding of emotions. The current list includes 80 separate emotions yet many overlap. And some are, well, foreign. Schadenfreude anyone?

So, how can emotions be classified so that we better understand them, and understanding them better use them in our writings? I believe psychologist and researcher Robert Plutchik who spent decades studying emotions has the answer. Plutchik’s research yielded some amazing discoveries about emotions including a comprehensive list of eight primary emotions arranged as opposing pairs. Observe:

  • Joy vs Sadness
  • Trust vs Disgust
  • Fear vs Anger
  • Surprise vs Anticipation

He also visualized this list as a wheel of sorts, referred to by some as Plutchik’s Flower:


Author: Ivan Akira
Source: Wikimedia Commons
License: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

Also note that the two-dimensional flower can fold into a spinning top shape as shown in the upper-left corner. The tip of the top and the center of the flower is the point of emotional zero.

Plutchik’s approach satisfies our needs by providing:

  • a semantically-consistent set of distinct emotions
  • an organizational structure
  • a standard set of names

Plutchik’s approach satisfies our expectations by providing:

  • levels of intensity in emotions
  • the blending of primary emotions to form new ones
  • the concept of emotional “opposites” as mutually exclusive pairs
  • a blank, non-emotional state

In summary, Robert Plutchik left us a deep legacy. Next time I’ll write about blending emotions. This is where the really interesting stuff happens and which can be directly applied to the process of writing.