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Emotions are the most important ingredients for narrative storytelling. They are the driving factor for every human action – use them wisely and you can create believable and appealing characters that touch your audience. In this article we will have a look at what emotions are and why they are so important for every story.

A part of human nature

Emotions are the subjective intuitive side of our human nature. From a biological point of view, they are chemical and neurological events in our bodies that cause feelings, mood, and irrational impulses. On the other hand, we also have the ability to make very rational and objective thoughts despite our emotional inclinations.

This is a constant polarity in our nature – as you may know, the brain is split into two hemispheres, which function in different ways: the left side is more objective and the right side, more subjective. However emotions constantly influence how we process our thoughts and our actual concluding action, no matter how left-brained we may be, because we cannot switch them off.

Sometimes we feel emotionally balanced.
Sometimes a complex structure of feelings is battling inside of us.
Sometimes one emotion is so strong that it takes over all control.

In any case, a thought or an idea goes through an emotional evaluation –  it could be a simple “what you do is right” feeling, a conflict, a rage, etc. – until it becomes an action

Emotions are a constant, basic human attribute, and if you claim that your fictional characters are feeling human beings (or human-like beings), they naturally need to be driven by them too. Furthermore, these emotions provide a link to the audience. Your viewers need to find something in your characters that they are able to empathize or identify with, and that makes them care for their struggles and outcome of their journeys.

Emotions = motivations

Pure, logical thinking is not what leads to the action; it is how a person feels about something that defines what he does next and how he does it. The same rational thought can lead to different actions, because of how we deal with them emotionally. “My brother is rich and I am poor” is a rational observation. Further actions around this only unfold if you charge it with an emotion like, “I envy him so much that I will try to ruin his life” or “I admire him so much that I will ask him to be my mentor”. The factual situation in both cases is exactly the same! A character’s background and his current emotion lead him to make this or that choice (which can be a good one or a bad one). An emotion is motivation. Keep in mind that one particular motivation also demotivates a character to do certain (opposite) things. Read more about how a character’s motivation and past determines the whole animation in this article. If the audience can’t feel that there is an authentic emotion, an attitude, a realistic personality behind a character’s behavior, they will never care for him or your story.

A limited set

As brilliant and complex as the human mind is, the number of emotions we feel is relatively small. Most people have experienced almost all the emotions that they will feel by the time they are an adult – either for themselves or from stories (which are simulated experiences). Furthermore, we all should have developed empathy that enables us to comprehend emotional reactions of others, even if we have never been in the same situation. Moments where we are surprised that we can feel a new emotion are very rare, and usually just a very strong form of a known feeling. Sooner or later all humans have the same emotional “vocabulary” – and you need to use this vocabulary to touch your audience, to make them understand your characters. The range of emotions we can feel is limited. It is just difficult to clearly classify them, and obviously we can never know if a particular emotion feels and means the same thing for everyone else. Here is a list that tries to give an overview of our basic emotions:

There are different models, but all of them feature a finite number of emotions. This is like a Lego set for story writers – you have a box with a limited selection of bricks to create something original. You have to construct clever patterns, decide on a color scheme and only build as high as your foundation can bear. It is about a believable composition which has to be follow the individual personality and development. Next week we will play around with this construction set and try to find some interesting concepts and structures.

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