Last time I introduced you to Robert Plutchik‘s emotions. Today we’ll talk about blending the eight basic emotions and how to use them in our writing. The color wheel (GIF Image) from last time doesn’t show any blending beyond neighboring emotions. These are listed between the “petals” in the flower diagram. For example, “Optimism” is a blend of both “Anticipation” and”Joy”.
Thankfully, Plutchik didn’t stop there.
|Emotion||LVL||Composition||Opposite||Intense Form||Mild Form|
|Aggressiveness||Primary Blend||Anger + Anticipation||Alarm1|
|Optimism||Primary Blend||Anticipation + Joy||Disappointment|
|Contempt||Primary Blend||Disgust + Anger||Submission|
|Alarm1||Primary Blend||Fear + Surprise||Aggressiveness|
|Love||Primary Blend||Joy + Trust||Remorse|
|Remorse||Primary Blend||Sadness + Disgust||Love|
|Disappointment||Primary Blend||Surprise + Sadness||Optimism|
|Submission||Primary Blend||Trust + Fear||Contempt|
|Pride||Secondary Blend||Anger + Joy||Despair|
|Hope2||Secondary Blend||Anticipation + Trust||Unbelief3|
|Cynicism||Secondary Blend||Disgust + Anticipation||Curiosity|
|Despair||Secondary Blend||Fear + Sadness||Pride|
|Guilt||Secondary Blend||Joy + Fear||Envy|
|Envy||Secondary Blend||Sadness + Anger||Guilt|
|Unbelief3||Secondary Blend||Surprise + Disgust||Hope2|
|Curiosity||Secondary Blend||Trust + Surprise||Cynicism|
|Dominance||Tertiary Blend||Anger + Trust||Shame|
|Anxiety||Tertiary Blend||Anticipation + Fear||Outrage|
|Morbidness||Tertiary Blend||Disgust + Joy||Sentimentality|
|Shame||Tertiary Blend||Fear + Disgust||Dominance|
|Outrage||Tertiary Blend||Surprise + Anger||Anxiety|
|Sentimentality||Tertiary Blend||Trust + Sadness||Morbidness|
|Delight||Tertiary Blend||Joy + Surprise||Pessimism|
|Pessimism||Tertiary Blend||Sadness + Anticipation||Delight|
1 – Plutchik gave “Awe” as the emotion for “Fear + Surprise”. I believe “Alarm” is a better choice since “Awe” has lost the connotation of fear over the years.
3 – Plutchik used “Fatalism” for “Anticipation + Trust” but it has such negative connotations I have included “Hope” instead.
3 – Plutchik did not include an emotion for “Surprise + Disgust” by any list I could find. Therefore, I have included “Unbelief” to fill this space.
4 – Plutchik did not include the state described as “Emotional Zero” in his list. However, I believe it is useful and have therefore included “Rest” to represent it.
So how can we tap into this ocean of emotion and make it flow onto our pages?
- The first and simplest step is to save a copy of this information for your personal reference. A fabulous poster (PDF) exists courtesy of Markus Drews of the University of Applied Sciences in Potsdam, Germany.
- Next, read over the list of emotions again. Look at the diagram. Get them into your head. Study. Focus. Cram. Actually, don’t cram but do all the other things. Take the time to really explore what this theory means to you and your writing.
- Feel free to test the limits of Plutchik’s theory as you do this. For example, does the combination of “Fear + Disgust” suggest “Shame” to you as he proposes? How about the other combinations? I had an excellent discussion with someone who expressed doubt about Fear and Anger being mutually-exclusive opposites. I shared this insight: In both emotions, one’s attention is strongly focused – usually on some object or person. However, the action that expresses the emotion happens in opposite directions; Fear is about escaping away from that focal object whereas when Angry one usually cannot be kept away. Clearly ‘approach’ and ‘escape’ cannot co-exist in the same moment of time so in this sense Fear and Anger are mutually-exclusive opposites.
- The previous step should naturally lead to thoughts of individual characters as their emotions travel around Plutchik’s wheel. In general, let the wheel be the spark that ignites your creative juices. Use it to identify and emphasize opposites (as in dialogue between two characters with different scene purposes).
- Finally, if Plutchik’s research is correct, then many writers are not using the full spectrum (or potential) of emotions in their writing. Make your characters three-dimensional by showing as much depth to their personalities as possible.
Let me introduce you to Sylvia who has just returned home from the grocery store to find her door smashed in and splintered. Her arms are full of groceries. What emotions would she experience?
How about Outrage (Surprise + Anger) over the state of her door, Anticipation that an intruder might still lurk inside, Fear and very likely Terror (Intense Fear) that she will be discovered on the stoop.
In Alarm (Surprise + Fear) she grasps the grocery bags tight around her body like a shield. Her eyes are wide with Grief (Intense Sadness) as she lowers her head in an act of Submission (Trust + Fear) over the state of her home and backs silently away. As she nears the driveway she sees a shadowy figure in the outline of the broken door and reacts with Disgust and Contempt (Anger + Disgust), but she controls her emotions and does not leap forward in Rage (Intense Anger). Finding the handle to the car door provides a small measure of comfort (Serenity) as her emotions finally start to calm down (Rest) knowing that soon she will be safely away. She Trusts her engine to start smoothly – and it does.
No good writer would write a scene this way, so take it for what it is – an example, an exploration of all eight emotions in the same scene. Yet if you count them, they’re all represented! While including all eight probably isn’t a good thing, exploring all eight for each scene is. Use Plutchik to explore each of the eight emotions in your scenes to identify which are the best to use or emphasize.
By the way, we’re all biased. We all have pet words that we tend to overuse and we often prefer certain letters of the alphabet for our characters’ names. The same goes for emotions. We write about certain emotions while ignoring others. So use Plutchik to keep your writing fresh by exploring the areas of human emotion that you often overlook. Keep what improves your writing and discard what doesn’t.
Finally, the thoughtful and observant writer will note the need for specific methods to include this material in their writing. For this, I propose the need for a comprehensive list of Facial Expressions, Body Language, and Mental States mapped to Plutchik’s emotions. However, in my research such a list doesn’t yet exist. So that will have to be the topic of another post. Hopefully, I’ve given you much to think about and a new tool to explore in your writing.