Core Emotion and Primary Character Trait

In stories, the characters’ emotions are ultimately the sources of their actions, because motivations are ultimately based on emotions.

Determining the emotional core of a character in a story may lead to a clearer understanding of that character’s behaviour, i.e. their actions.

What we’re getting at here is essentially a premise for creating a story. We have noted that if you plonk a group of contrasting characters in a room – or story-world –, then a plot can emerge out of the arising conflicts of interest. If you’re designing a story, one approach is to create the contrasts between the characters (their essential differences of character) by giving each character a core emotion. One character may be frivolous, another penny-pinching. One may be fearful, another cheeky.

You might object: Isn’t that a bit one-dimensional? Aren’t characters with just one core emotion flat?

Not necessarily. Focusing on one core emotion is not a cheap trick. It is as old as storytelling.

Classical Storytelling

Ancient stories focus on characters with specific emotions or qualities. It is these emotions that make them distinguishable, that give them their character. Gilgamesh is initially proud and arrogant – he needs to be made humble. He is later struck by grief, and must learn to cope with this emotion. Enkidu is wild. He needs to be tamed. Agamemnon, while kingly and steadfast, is also haughty. Achilles’ wrath and rage are legend, his core emotion is anger. Aeneas is pious and just. Beowulf is strong, but in danger of being proud. In The Divine Comedy, the character Dante is spiritually lost, and guided by the reasonable and wise Virgil. Shakespeare built some characters around one primary emotion: Othello is jealous.

You might say that this type of character is old-fashioned. Nowadays audiences and readers prefer more realism and complexity.

Modern Characters

Flaubert is often credited with creating a watershed in storytelling. It is claimed that his characters are psychologically complex and may therefore seem more “realistic” to modern sensibilities. Nonetheless, Emma Bovary’s core emotion is that she is romantic and naïve.

In the twentieth century, perhaps because of Freud’s influence, the idea became prevalent that characters, in order to be more life-like, have to be psychologically “well-rounded”. In real life, people have all sorts of emotions – you can’t really pin only one overriding emotional state on one person.

Stories, on the other hand, are slices of life. One of the main reasons stories exist in the first place is to show us the potential effects of certain emotions. Moral parables and fables demonstrate this most explicitly: the boastful hare is taught a lesson about his overconfidence by the tortoise.

You might say that most stories are not like that. But, just as an example, you see the same tortoise and hare scene in the movie Cars.

You might say that stories for adults don’t – or shouldn’t – exhibit such clear “morals” or an “author’s message”.

True. But then again …

Look at a story, any story, and see if you can’t spot a curve, usually a learning curve, in the protagonist. This change is sometimes called the character arc. Isn’t the main character, and probably some other characters too, wiser at the end of the story than at the beginning? Irrespective of his or her success in doing so, was there not some internal problem that the character really needed to solve before the end of the story? If so, that internal problem was likely based on a character trait, and character traits tend to come from an emotional stance. From that emotional stance it is only a short step to a pinpointable primary emotion at the core of this character.

So how does an author make a character with one core emotion well-rounded? How must the character be in order not to appear flat?

A character gets interesting by having contrast within him or herself. A character who is consistently fearful, frivolous, penny-pinching or cheeky supplies few surprises for the audience or reader, and therefore runs the risk of being boring. This is avoidable by seeing emotions as axes, along which specific actions occur. The axes of emotions create dimensions of character. We’ll get to these axes later.


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