14

Last Christmas my sister bought me a tome called The Book of Human Emotions (by Tiffany Watt Smith). I just started reading it and it got me thinking about how a writer might arouse emotion in a reader (and not in terms of provoking them to throw the book out of the window in disgust).

Emotions are perhaps not my forte - I tend to be rather logical in my thinking, and so getting to the nitty-gritty of this kind of technique would be of enormous benefit to my writing (and perhaps would benefit other left-brainers reading these answers too). Consequently - no detail is too trivial.

To make it more focused, though - I would like answers to concentrate on one emotion: anger. And so my question is: how can a fiction writer elicit the emotion/feeling of anger in readers, in terms of getting them to feel and therefore closely identify with what the (angry) character is experiencing?


Research: Does this writing create emotion in the reader? makes a good start, but the question is about a particular piece of work and the answers are rather general. What makes writing emotional? also makes inroads but the question is about technical writing and the answers are consequently about how to inject personality in a paper. And, again - the advice (while good) is general.

  • I have a few pages on various aspects of writing, including one on emotion. You may find something useful in it: foofy.com/francine/homepage/writing6.html – Francine DeGrood Taylor Jun 1 '18 at 15:20
  • I clicked on the link @Francine (before someone flags it as ''self-promotion' or something like that; it happens) and I'm glad I did. I would love nothing more than for you to put a slice of that in an Answer (minus the link) and post it here. I'm sure people would benefit. Make sure you link to your lovely site in your profile so that I can look around when I have more time. Thanks again. :) – robertcday Jun 1 '18 at 15:39
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    One thing I want to add that doesn't seem to warrant its own answer is this: You can only create the space and opportunity for a reader to feel something, you can't make them feel it. Another way to say that is, if you do your job right, you won't accidentally put anything in that takes the reader out of the story, and you'll have enough in there to get the reader into the story. Bring the reader in at the beginning, don't shut them out, and then show the events and the reactions of the characters, and allow readers to find meaning or not in those events and reactions. – Todd Wilcox Jun 1 '18 at 16:11
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    @robertcday It's fine to link to own content. It's absolutely fine to link to own content to support one's posts. I've done it a bunch of times myself. What we don't want, broadly speaking, is links to own content (or content where one has a financial interest) that don't disclose the fact that it's one's own, or answers that only point elsewhere. Compare How to not be a spammer in the help center and Your answer is in another castle: when is an answer not an answer? on Meta Stack Exchange. – a CVn Jun 2 '18 at 11:34
  • Nice clarification, @Michael - appreciate that. – robertcday Jun 2 '18 at 12:02
7

The first step to arouse any kind of emotion in your reader is to make the character relatable. If your readers can't relate to your character it doesn't matter what you do to the character, your readers won't feel a thing. If your villain just entered the stage and is angry at someone without any clear indication about why they are angry and what consequences there are when they are angry your readers will just assume "that's how he is", instead of feeling the anger themselves.

After that you have to make sure to write a situation that would naturally make anyone in that situation angry and show how your character reacts and why he reacts that way. It's one thing to write that "he was angry because of the slow traffic", but it's a whole different story when writing that "the slow drivers in front of him meant that he wouldn't be able to make it home in time to drive his daughter to her game - again".

Go through all the implications of the situation. To learn about which parts are important you should try to remember situations where you felt angry yourself. What was the situation? And why did it make you angry? Was is just the slow traffic, or was it something you missed? Was it your boss not acknowledging your work, or was it the fact that a smaller bonus meant less money for vacation, which in turn leads to a less happy family life?

Was it your colleague dumping those software bugs on you on a friday afternoon or the fact that you would miss your usual meeting with your friends because of the additional work? Was it your colleague dumping those software bugs on you on a friday afternoon or the fact that the two of you have talked about this issue "time and again" and you thought you've finally found a solution where that wouldn't happen again? Or was it both? Were you angry because the slow drivers made you spend so much time driving that you will have less free time, then the coffee was too hot, the vending machine swallowed your money, you have loads of work at home and now your colleague dropped some work on you, despite the two of you having an arrangement and this incident means you will also miss your dear free time activity that helps you cope with all the stress you have to endure at work throughout the week, your favourite show that you were looking forward to all day long?

And you should think about how you would cope with the situation and how your character copes with it. Does your character just stay silent and accept that the world sometimes is unfair? Or does he mumble to himself how he hates that "this always happens to me, every time..." and how this affects his life? Was this the first incident and therefore a new experience or is this something that's been going on for some time, affecting his life in an unhealthy way? What are ways to vent the anger? Scream at someone who wasn't at fault? Go running until completely exhausted? Watching TV to simply switch of the thoughts about the incidents?

"Anger" has many components that are not easily visible and like with every emotion the reader needs to be aware of the problem and its consequences to be able to feel with the character.

7

Consider Actors & Movies

While watching a movie it is rare that you know what any character is thinking. Yes, there are movies with narration, but they are rare. And they are rare because they break convention of what movie-goers generally want.

The point here is that as a movie watcher you can generally tell what emotion any given character is displaying even though you cannot read their minds.

Works Same Way In Real Life (IRL)

The interesting thing is that this all works the same way IRL. People rarely say direct things like, "I'm angry!" or "I"m so sad today."

However, as humans we all generally and quickly know what mood (which emotions another person is experiencing) another person is in.

What Happens When A Person Is Experiencing An Emotion?

Working backwards from there you can begin to think about what a person might do when she is experiencing an certain emotion. What actions portray an emotion? Now, begin to imagine your character acting those emotions out.

Vicariously Experiencing Emotions of Others

One of the most powerful things that can happen is watching someone else experiencing an emotion. As you see them go through it you too will vicariously experience the emotion too. That means if you will simply show your character going through the emotion clearly then your readers will experience those emotions too.

Here are two examples I've created to display:

  1. Emotions as actions playing out

  2. Readers do not have to be told the emotion nor do they need to be told how to feel. Instead they can experience it themselves as they watch the actions.

This will make your writing far more effective and grabbing to the reader. Robert Olen Butler (prize-winning author and lecturer on fiction) explains this really well in his book, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction.

Sample 1

Samantha walked out of her manager's office and the door closed behind her. Samantha clenched her fists, closed her eyes silently cursed. She opened her eyes and stomped back to her desk.

Sample 2

Burt walked toward the place where Fluffy was laying in the street. Burt's heart pounded as he neared Fluffy. No, it can't be. She was just running in the yard just ten minutes ago. He reached down and nudged Fluffy. She didn't move. Burt's eyes burned and he blinked slowly. It can't be. He rubbed her soft fur and sobbed.

5

Arousing emotions in writing is really hard. But there is always a pattern out there you can try and follow.

For the emotion of anger you can take an example at internet trolls and their drive to instill flamewars on forums.

Their motivation is mostly selfish and seek pleasure in sowing discord.

Often they feel miserable and/or jaelous and need an outlet as a release for their own feelings.

They then seek a forum, a thread, a post they can victimize and can respond to maximum effect. Instead of clearly answering a question or responding to the post they will insult and post a conflicting opinion of the poster. In seeking conflict openly there will be responses by either the OP (Original poster) or people that feel they need to defend the OP. This instilled response is not always without an opinion of their own. This could then cause the troll or other people to respond. A chain reaction is what follows and can end up in a flame war.

So what is the most effective way of causing anger in writing?

Make sure the reader has some sort of opinion or feeling and then try to bash it, insult it, and contradict it. It being that opinion or feeling, the more ridiculous or loaded the better. Have the reader care about something and then kill it off in a single stroke. Do something the reader is morally against.

I hope it helps.


EDIT: (an example)

Context is everything! So before I give an example I will give a fictional case with finctional people. Imagine this:

Andrew is an amateur swimmer. He competed in a regional qualifier for the nationals. To enter match he had won a preliminary match.

Unfortunately he was placed second but he was still very happy about his result. So happy he wanted to share it on his swimming forum which he had used to learn the best techniques and helped him a lot honing his skills.

"Second place at regionals:"

Hello fellow forum people

I would like to thank you for all your teachings and support for the regionals I entered.

I even managed second place!

Couldn't have done it without you guys, maybe next time I can hit the nationals.

It is important that the OP shows some kind of emotion about the subject. Happiness works nicely. But it also works with displeasure, and in some cases it works even better.

Next up, the troll. Bob, also an amateur swimmer, a very fanatical one. Every day and every hour he could spend, he spent training for the upcoming swimming matches. Obviously he would make nationals like last year. No competition is a match for him. He lost to Andrew in the preliminary. It was real close but still Bob was extremely angry about it. He is also a member of the swimming forum. He saw the post of Andrew about his result. Second place. I knew he wasn't good enough. If only he just let me win. At least I would be able to reach the finals.

"Re: Second place at regionals:"

I'm sorry to hear you reached second place.

I guess you didn't have the skills to win just yet.

You shouldve given up and let me win in the preliminaries at least I could beat that number 1 of the regionals.

This is Bob's response. He is angry and wants Andrew to feel bad. He shows pity for Andrew and wants to make him feel bad by telling him he lacks skill. On the other hand he also wants to tell him that he is angry and tells him he shouldn't have competed in the first place.

The effect of a negative post like this is usually unpredictable on a forum. You can get justice warriors trying to defend the OP. Telling him he did just fine getting second place. Others will feel pity for the troll. Others will be angry at the troll for reacting so negatively.

But for the sake of the emotion anger I will make an example of a reaction to the troll.

Meet Carl, a swimming enthousiast. He likes the competition but never really got the time to try swimming competatively. He often reads the swimming forum and enjoys reading about people getting results. He sees the post of Andrew. Someone who was actively asking questions on the forum. Carl even helped Andrew with some of his techniques. He got second on the regionals! That is a nice result. I bet my techniques helped him well. Let's read his post. Carl reads the post and is happy at first. Until he reads the response of Bob, our troll. How could he say that! He won fair and square and probably did the best he could.

"Re: Re: Second place at regionals:"

Well Bob, he beat you fair and square.

I guess you just wasn't good enough for Andrew.

Just let him enjoy his accomplishment!

A valid response for someone angry on a forum right? All loaded with emotion.

Again context is everything!

Without the preknowledge of what happened it is hard to tell which emotion is instilled and what is written. This reply of Carl can also give the troll an opening to respond until a chain reaction of negativity degrades Andrews positively toned post.

I hope this example will give you an idea of what I meant. There are a million (other) ways to describe this. But writing about emotions and instilling emotions is really hard!

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    No problem. There are so many more things I can say about this. But I hope this will help you in your quest to instill emotion. As a disclaimer I will not be responsible for any forum trolls that use these kind of techniques. – Totumus Maximus Jun 1 '18 at 11:58
  • Actually I'd call that imaginary post flamebait, not troll. A troll could have posted how swimming is a stupid sports anyway, and real men certainly play basketball. – celtschk Jun 1 '18 at 19:05
5

I think there is a difference between making the reader angry, and making a character angry.

First, to Totomus's idea of looking to Internet trolls: Notice they attack their targets personally with insults, lies, non-sequitur, idiot "logic" and twisting what was said, putting words in the mouths of their victims. Trolls are ad hominem attackers, disputing the veracity of their victims, using insults to argue their victims have no social worth or standing and basically do not belong or have no right to make arguments. You cannot do that in writing for mass consumption, these are personal attacks.

However, you can study Internet trolls if you want a character to be angry at another troll character in the story. Do a competent job and you can expect your reader to understand that anger, but not necessarily feel that same anger. If the emotion is felt by the MC and the reader identifies closely; you may create in them a kind of sympathetic shadow of the MC's emotion; kind of like remembering having had that emotion, or having a friend that has that emotion.

Speaking to a fellow analytic, the same goes for love, contentment, sadness, despair, guilt, etc. The major emotions have been studied by professionals. There are several clinical signs of somebody being in love, for example. I don't know how scientific your particular book is; but the trick is to understand how an emotion manifests in a person IRL, and then translate those manifestations into your fictional character and their setting, and voilà: Your character is plausibly feeling that emotion.

For example, if we look at romantic love; there are a list of ramifications to choose from.

  • A bit of OCD with constant intrusive thoughts about the loved one, mentally playing over and over trivial incidents like having made the loved one smile or laugh, investing great emotional significance in minor gestures or trinkets, like a plastic ring or a picked flower given by the loved one.
  • Feeling out of control; passion feels involuntary. Feelings of helplessness and knowing they are being irrational but unable to stop.
  • Emotional dependency. Possessiveness, jealousy, fear of rejection, separation anxiety. Cravings for emotional union and/or sexual union (different things).
  • Empathy and Sacrifice, a willingness to sacrifice for their lover: change jobs, drop out of school, change sexual practice, change their politics or religion, fight to punish those that make their lover unhappy.
  • A forcing of alignment; reordering priorities, changing clothing, mannerisms, language, habits and values to work better with the beloved.
  • Sexual desire with a craving for exclusivity, extreme jealousy at any hint of your lover's infidelity or even a hint of sexual interest in another. Combined with the previous trait of "sacrifice" this can produce social isolation of the lovebirds.

The trick for the writer is to take this laundry list of ramifications, and select a few of them to show in scenes, and figure out how these kinds of feelings would manifest in the character(s) you want to be in love. Not every trait has to be felt; some are ramped up or down depending on culture. In a conservative culture where women are raised to be virginal before marriage, that "craving for sexual union" may be fantasies of embrace or kissing and nothing more; and her attempts may go further in the craving for emotional union; in the form of talk.

In a more liberal setting where pre-marital sex is common and knowledge of it is common, those cravings and the OCD may be far more pornographic.

The same goes for other emotions; look in your book (or on the Internet) for generalizations that can be turned into such laundry lists of traits, then pick a few of these generalizations and remake them as specific things for your specific character, how that person specifically manifests that trait.

For writers the point is to make a plausible character experiencing that emotion. If your reader has empathy and sympathy, they will not necessarily feel out of control in love, but will enjoy seeing their friend feel it: Your MC.

And that in turn is how you make the reader feel dread, anticipation, triumph, etc: The character's feelings make them like her and understand her and then when the story turns and puts her in danger, or threatens to upend her plans, or the love of her life turns out to be a fraud: The reader wants her to be alright, or survive, or triumph, and keeps reading because they have an emotional need to know what happens to her.

  • The question was about the reader so I focussed on that. This answer is really good and words what I'm trying to convey much better, – Totumus Maximus Jun 1 '18 at 12:21
4

The best way that I have found to make readers feel emotions is to lead them through the same journey that the POV goes through to become angry. You must make us care about something in order to make us angry about it.

Just this morning, I read something that made me angry. http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/a-64-year-old-put-his-life-savings-in-his-carry-on-us-customs-took-it-without-charging-him-with-a-crime/ar-AAy4kcL?li=BBnb7Kz\

Certainly not anything new, I'm sure this has been going on for a long time and that there are two sides to the story, but then I read this question and it got me thinking.

If someone had just told me that custom officials were allowed to seize large amounts of cash from people even if they couldn't prove them guilty of a crime, I'd have agreed that this was a situation with big potential for abuse. I'd have been mildly outraged, but also understood that there's an underlying reason for the situation.

But the article (as good articles do) took me through the man's experience. It made me imagine that it was me there, with my entire life savings, strip searched for no reason, my money stolen and there was NOTHING THAT I COULD DO about it.

That's how you make people feel emotion. You suck them into the head of your POV by creating a person they can identify with, someone who reacts the way that they can image they would, and then using the experiences of that person, you do terrible (or wonderful) things to your readers while they are trapped in the head of your POV.

Now, that's harder than it sounds. The farther your characters are from your readers, the harder you have to work to make your readers identify with them. For example, I'm a woman. So the writer has to work just a little harder to make me identify with a male character. If that character is from a different environment, a different culture with different mores, has a different physiology, these things make forging this identification that much harder.

I have always admired CJ Cherryh's ability to create aliens who can be identified with. One of the ways she does it is by infusing her aliens with reactions that readers can identify with. When presented with an enemy or someone we dislike intensely, how many of us would actually "scream, and leap!" Not many (hopefully), but how many of us would secretly love to do just that?

There are two good ways that I've found to foster this sense of identification

  1. This character reacts the way that I would react to what (s)he perceives
  2. This character is doing the things that I would love to do, but can't

Once you have that identification, that mind meld that comes when your readers are firmly ensconced in your POV's head, creating emotion is merely a case of creating a situation that would make any reasonable person feel the emotion under those circumstances. The more closely your readers identify with your characters, the more strongly they will react emotionally to what the character is experiencing.

One caution, however, if the emotions that you create become unpleasant, your reader may break off that connection. Thomas Covenant leaps to mind. (Although, obviously, since he managed to get ten books published he must be doing something right). Also, the remake of Battlestar Galactica. Incredibly intense, it was the most emotionally charged series I ever watched, but I stopped watching after a couple of seasons. It was just too much emotion. But the story was beautifully crafted and the ideology had incredible depth.

BTW, as requested, here's the link to my writing page:

http://www.foofy.com/francine/homepage/writing.html

The second section in it contains links to my notes on writing elements.

  • Ah, you posted an Answer already. Embarrassed. Sorry. – robertcday Jun 1 '18 at 17:03
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    I'm glad you found my web page interesting and (I hope) useful :) Thanks for letting me know. I wrote it many years ago, when I was actively participating in the Critters online critiquing group (I have a link to it and would wholeheartedly recommend it) and I spent a lot of time both critiquing and thinking about the principles of critiquing. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Jun 5 '18 at 17:35
3

Forget the petty everyday annoyances like being stuck in traffic. What awakens your righteous anger? What makes your blood boil? Here are some examples.

Injustice

If I read about a child being bullied or abused, I am going to be angry: angry at the bully, angry at the adults who are allowing this to happen. The child mighdt be angry, but I would actually be angrier if he isn't - if he's instead afraid, sad, or maybe doesn't even realise he's being abused. A possible example is Diana Wynne Jones's The Lives of Christopher Chant, where a child is being exploited by his uncle, without even realising, while the mother is busy with social events, and the father is busy avoiding the mother.

Any weak group, not necessarily a child, would elicit the same reaction. A downtrodden populace rising up in arms against an oppressor, a glorious revolution - those kind of stories rely on eliciting anger against the story's "oppressor". Take Robin Hood as an example: in every retelling, Nottingham does something that would make both Robin and the reader/viewer angry.

Pettiness, self-absorbed characters, negligence

When you knock on every door and nobody listens, when whoever should be in charge cannot get his head out of his rear end, when there were a hundred warnings but nobody lifted a finger, when you need something really important, but the gatekeeper still remembers how you told on him at school years ago. And it's the story's Big Goal at stake! Sounds familiar?

The Mass Effect games play with this: you're trying to save the world, but nobody would help you, because they're too busy with internal politics. But I'd say this setup would actually be more effective if the protagonist is, at least to some extent, helpless against the situation.

Betrayal

The big one. The reason we don't want to strangle Iago is that Othello is a very old play - we're already familiar with it. But when the MC trusts another character, and the reader trusts that character, a betrayal would elicit a lot of anger. And like with the injustice example, the reader's anger needn't coincide with the MC's: on omniscient narrator can show us the traitor's scheming, and we'd be boiling with anger even while we observe the trusting MC continue to fall further into the traitor's net.

The list goes on.
You don't need to reinvent the wheel. Open a newspaper. Which stories make you angry? There, you've got your examples. A writer eliciting an anger emotion in the readers. That what he's writing happens to be fact rather than fiction is happenchance.

0

I have read a great many books, and frankly I cannot remember ever being emotionally aroused, at all.

Now hear me out...

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotion#/media/File:Plutchik-wheel.svg shows a catalogue of emotions, I guess one could call it a pretty complete set. I'd say the kind of emotions I'm looking at when reading a good book are things like joy, anticipation, interest; and conceivably boredom or disgust when the book is not to my taste.

The problem is: I am not experiencing joy because a character in a book does so. I am not experiencing surprise because a character is surprised by something. I experience joy and interest simply because I like the book and the act of reading. I experience anticipation because I want to know what's coming next; not because of what actually happens to the characters in the book.

Nothing about this is something that the author has specifically written into his book. Obviously every author wants to have the positive emotions of his readers for every single one of his books, so the book is sold more. But it's not like they finetune their sentences to create a specific emotion. They write an interesting and surprising book because... it's just what we do.

I can experience joy, interest, surprise, anticipation, boredom etc. when reading a paper about mathematics or physics or almost any other science - where the author has done his utmost best to avoid emotional stuff. This tells me that the emotions I listed don't really count, for your question. If you fail to impart any positive emotion, you won't even get printed in the first place. The "relevant" emotions for your question would be the difficult ones... optimism, remorse, submission, love, ecstasy, awe, trust, rage. And also anger, which is the one you are asking about.

I simply cannot think of any way through which you could ever make me angry by reading a book, i.e. a medium that is not addressed specifically to me. At all. Not possible, sorry.

  • I think it fair to say that some people are more easily manipulated emotionally than others. If you're not being substantially manipulated as you read, that's fine, you likely make a stronger distinction between reality and fiction than most. Your response is something of a non-answer though, and unhelpfully subjective. A couple thousand years of literary history says that the average person absolutely can be emotionally manipulated by a good book, the question is how to write that sort of book, not how to manipulate you personally. – Ruadhan2300 Jun 4 '18 at 8:31

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