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Emotions – building blocks of life

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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9 comments

  1. sanderson says:

    great stuff thanks for this. I’m reminded of an old quote that goes ‘don’t animate a character just let him live on screen’. I don’t remember who said it but this reminds me of that!

  2. [...] last week’s article we discussed emotions – what they are and why you need them to bring characters to life in a narrative story. In [...]

  3. Rachael says:

    This writing has inspired me to start writing on my own blog about emotions and keeping them in mind when you animate. I’ll post a link when I’m done!!

  4. Christan says:

    I think its real hard to get a character looking like they really feel the emotions instead of just acting like they do. Any tips on that?? I never get it right.

    • Did you already see this week’s article? I think it has some very valuable tips about how to approach a character’s personality, which is the foundation for believable acting: http://www.animatorisland.com/?p=690
      You always have to make sure that a character has a motivation to do what he does and furthermore that the way he does it fits to his character and the situation.
      A common problem is that we force the emotion too much. Well-staged, subtle hints usually have more effect than exaggerated emotions. Also, you should use a few good poses (you might have to invest days into finding one striking key pose) rather than a lot of mediocre poses the character just runs through. For me, it sometimes helps to bring myself into a similar mood (listen to sad, aggressive, dreamy, happy songs depending on what you need). Oh, and especially in CGI you have to get rid of every wooden and unrealistically flowing motion or it might destroy the emotional impact of your poses completely. So only leave stepped interpolation when you are sure that everything is working.

  5. Christian says:

    Thanks for the link to that article, it was really helpful. I guess I need to get in their head more. I’ll try the music thing that sounds like a great idea! THANK YOU!!

  6. Devon T. says:

    A friend sent me this link and you got a cool site here. I’ll be back.

  7. Found this article while I was looking for examples of images for my most recent blog on the importance of writing emotion into fiction. Very good article! Great information.

  8. nice flippitz says:

    I appreciate you sharing this article. Cool.

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