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Accurately portraying a character's emotions is a huge part of getting an audience to like them as a person. But the character I am writing is essentially a living computer. They have no emotions to speak of. Essentially, they're an empty shell.

So, my question is, how can you demonstrate a character's emotionlessness through their dialogue or other subtle character interactions?

So far, I've used a lot of different methods to make them "sound" more emotionless. For example, giving them a big and very technical vocabulary. In other words, they speak like they are reading out of a dictionary.

When describing their voice I would often use words like "cold" or "apathetic", mentioning that there is never any inflection in their voice. They also never use terms of endearment, always calling the main character by her first name and only that. They also blatantly ignore most of the other characters and only speak to the MC.

It's easy to understand emotions such as fear, anger, or sadness and try to portray those in a character, but the idea of a character with no emotions at all feels rather alien and difficult to accurately describe through character interactions and dialogue.

4 Answers 4

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We anticipate other peoples emotive responses in situations. If we encounter a person who doesn't emote in ways we anticipate, we get a weird vibe off of them.

If this emotionless character is failing to emote, then the other character's in the scene will have strong reactions to the absence of affect your living computer is manifesting.

Of course, this means that this character of yours will need to be around other people, which doesn't seem to be too much of a burden since an emotionless character alone in the wilderness wouldn't be a challenge to present -- they just act like themselves and the readers have to figure this individual has not emotions.

But, in a population, an emotionless person interacting with regular people, will affect the people. Everyone who smiles and wishes him a good morning will be met with a stone-faced looked. They may ignore him, they may tell him to F himself too in response to such rudeness.

And, the problem only gets more intense if the interactions are highly emotional.

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  • I'd also add Albert Camus' The Stranger as recommended reading for an example of how to do this effectively. The protagonist of the novel, Meursault, has a flat, deadpan reaction to all manner of events that would normally evoke strong emotions, e.g. his mother's funeral, an intimate relationship with a woman he just met, and murdering another person.
    – Dmann
    Aug 16, 2022 at 16:51
  • @Dmann, that sounds like an excellent suggestion, if one can get over their personal dislike for French Existentialists!
    – EDL
    Aug 16, 2022 at 18:05
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Lots of emotionless characters have been written and people who tend to be less emotional exist in real life and depending on their emotions, can engage in a wide range of personalities. Sometimes, they are among the most popular characters in the show.

The best example is Spock from Star Trek who was raised by an alien race that was capable of strong emotions but culturally believed that demonstrating those emotions was taboo and instead would favor logic above emotional responses. That didn't mean Spock was incapable of acting on Emotions or didn't understand their value... they just chose not to show it (and would always give a logical motive for a seemingly emotional response). Spock worked great because he was frequently paired with Dr. McCoy, a person who would always bring the emotional argument and leaving Kirk to have to navigate between the two options. Most episodes focused on a moral dilemma that found that the emotional response was just as terrible as the logical one. But the perfect solution was somewhere in the middle (and involved the captain ripping his shirt or hitting them with a double fist punch).

Spock was so popular that every spin off series had a "Spock" like character who would be an outside observer who provided an alien view on the human condition. The Next Generation had Data, an android who was actually incapable of emotional responses and desired them... but was a talented artist even without them and was capable of understanding and imitating emotional behavior. Voyager had Tuvok, a Vulcan who was a security officer and thus not the scientist like Spock and later 7 of 9, who had a more outsider view of humanity than Tuvok to comment on. Deep Space 9 is the oddball in that there are plenty of characters willing to be the "outside commenter of the human condition" but they also tend to have strong emotional motives that back their logical decisions. Dax, the science officer, is a hedonist and when off duty enjoys pleasurable experiences. Quark, the bar man on the station, is a buisness man and is motivated by a desire to boost his bottom line. Odo, the head of station security, is motivated by a strong desire for Order but is a non-solid lifeform compared to the rest of the cast. All have very logical backgrounds but also have various levels of emotional desire as well.

In the Homage series to Star Trek The Orville, the character of Isaac portrays this role. He is a member of the Kaylon species, a race of androids who's creators died out. They are all machine logical like Data, but unlike Data, Isaac has no desire to experience emotions. He is motivated purely to by a desire to understand biological lifeforms as a whole and will often ask questions out of a motivation to find the logic behind the "illogical behavior". As the series moves on, it becomes clear that the Kaylon lack empathy, something all of Star Treks logical characters had in spades. Without spoiling too much, this lack of empathy was not just the Kaylon's foible, but the fatal flaw of their creators. And not only are the Kaylon capable of learning empathy, but can learn it quite quickly.

Dialog tends to be overly clinical in nature, especially paired with a science mind. They will be precise in giving information (such as declaring that Earth has an orbital period of 365.25 days, rather than 365 days). They will also use words in their correct meaning, not their vulgar meaning (for example, when the have an idea as to what is going on, they will declare "I hypothesize" rather than "I have a theory" because as everyone knows, theories are proven, hypothesis are testable but unproven until testing. However, it's not uncommon for people to use "theory" as a synonym for a deduction based on observation). In the right hands this can actually be humorous to the audience. Imagine the scene.

Captian: in the meeting room with senior staffers We have to solve this, [Logical Character], do you have any theories as to what is going on?

Logical: I have no theories.

the entire meeting room looks at Logical in shock

Logical: I do, however, have several hypothesises, but I would need to test those. Only then can I have a theory as to the nature of the phenomena.

Captain: exasperated Fine, whatever. Care to share with the rest of us?

Humor can also come in other ways. Sometimes the "logical" thing to do is to have an emotional discussion. Suppose a scene where Logical Character comes upon an injured person and has knowledge of first aid treatment:

Logical: While treating the victim Tell me about your romantic partner or what you perceive are desirable features of a romantic partner.

Victim: Gives Logical an answer and asks Logical for his preferences

Logical: I have no desires for a romantic relationship. I only inquired so that you would discuss a topic other than your injury as such conversations will help keep your mind off injuries which can prevent you from going into a state of shock. In our present situation, such a reaction would only complicate the matters further. There was no desire to learn of matters of a personal nature to yourself. Beat She sounds like a fascinating person.

Emotionless characters will tend to not have the ability to make interesting small talk and it can be difficult for people who actually want to get to know them to breach subjects with them when they have a difficult subject to discuss and want to ease into it. The emotionless character might not be candid with small talk, but once the point is reached, they will give a direct answer and explain the reasoning behind it. They may also respond to conversation starters in this manner. Asking them about the weather will result in them repeating the most recent weather report. Asking them "How's your day been" can have a neutral response if the day is not unusual for the character's routine.

Another thing to look for is the "Mathematician's answer" which is an answer that satisfies the question, but doesn't actually provide information that the person asking the question is seeking or finds useful. Consider the scene from Marvel's Avengers where Iron Man and Captian America are trying to fix the engine and the former has to talk the later through it. Iron Man asks Cap to open a panel and describe what he sees. Cap does so, revealing a complex mess of wires and lights... he replies "It appears to run on some form of electricity." Iron Man quips that "Well, you're not wrong..." Obviously, he wanted to know something more specific so he could tell Cap how to fix it... but Cap's so out of his depth he can't even give a description that could hope to help Tony... but what he does give him satisfies the answer and is correct.

The other example can be found in the misuse of the logical AND and OR in place of the linguistic "and" or "or". In logic, any statement that joins two or more logical statements by AND are true if both statements are true ("There are no clouds in the sky AND the sky is blue" is false if there are clouds in the sky. It's also false if there are no clouds in the sky BUT it's night time, so the sky is black). By contrast, any statement that joins two or more logical statements by OR is true if any of the logical statement is true. ("There are no clouds in the sky OR the sky is blue" is true if it is partially cloudy during the day because the sky is still blue. It's also true at night if there are no clouds in the sky, but the sky is black).

Someone can ask the Logical character if he likes blondes or brunettes. To which the logical character will respond "Yes", which is valid if he prefers either blondes only, brunettes only, both equally or if it does not affect his preference at all. His answer of "Yes" tells you nothing, but satisfies the question being asked to him.

This second form is often the logical character does have a sense of humor or has some sense of humor, because the person giving a such an answer has to have a good understanding of language and how words have multiple meaning, understand the desired answer of the question, and respond in a way that frustrates the person asking the question (often because they're frustrated by the question being asked in the first place as it's not required at the moment. Therefor the response should be just as useful as the question).

It should be pointed out that someone without emotion is not without passion. Spock and Data both had personal goals and interests they were trying to achieve. In fact, a neutrally toned, "Fascinating" was practically Spock's catch-phrase indicating that he was interested in something or had a eureka moment. Not to mention that he does have strong desires to procreate. Data, in his free time, would engage in theater, arts, and music. Isaac didn't want to just understand the unusual behaviors of biologicals, but wanted to participate and experience them (while he was baffled by the concept of a practical joke at first, once another character explained the practice, Isaac not only participated in the prank war, but was declared the winner of it for a prank that involved amputating someone's leg without their knowledge (scifi medicine made this less horrific than it sounds, as the ships doctor could regrow amputated limbs)). However, all of them were logical outgrowths of their character... not based on emotional whims. Passion might not be the best word, but you could feel the enthusiasm each character received from participating in the thing. Going back to Data, in one episode he is given several gifts, and proceeds to unwrap them in a delicate manner so that the giftwrapping may be used in the future. When another character points out that "that's not the point" Data rips the paper up and tosses it to the floor... despite the gift already being removed from the wrapping... he still doesn't get the point, and knows he missed something by the laughter of the person who protested... but understands it made the friend happy that he at least tried to meet expectations even without understanding it.

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Pleasant:

You want your character to be unemotional but intelligent. This does not mean they lack motives. So they have reptilian motives. Preserve self. Benefit self. If possible, benefit the recognized useful cooperative. But don’t scare the normies.

But soulless doesn’t mean dull. No one loves Hannibal Lecter for being unemotional, even if he doesn’t care if you live or die.

Hello! How are you? Your family was murdered? Fascinating. How is that working? Well, good luck!

Hello! How are you? You got a promotion? Fascinating. How is that working? Well, good luck!

Their behavior is intelligent, but a poor approximation of feeling. They present the same personality in all social interactions like a formula.

But when they need to concentrate, they go flat. If they go flat in a social situation, be afraid. You just outlived your usefulness.

Hello! How are you? We’re under attack? I require tactical data. Yes, that is an 11 inch double sided blade commonly known as a dagger. You are not being forthcoming. You have thirty seconds before I apply pain to extract the information. 20. Thank you! Fascinating. Good luck in the upcoming lethal encounter!

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I am sorry there, but anger, fear and sadness aren't emotions, those are called feelings, emotions are the physical mental reaction but not the inner state of response. Emotions could be laughter, crying, shocked, surprised, scared but not sad, afraid and whatnot.

Edit : We humans have a part that we control and a part that we don't. The sentient reactions that we decide to have are feelings, the ones we will never be able to control completely but only partially are the emotions, you can decide on being happy, but you can't decide to laugh unless something triggers you.

In answer to your question..

We could only tell by the action and the reaction, there are no words that would tell others than how somethings respond, whether verbally or actually, a robot's response could be to not suspect a criminal or asks for a picnic after someone just died. That's because robots use logic and not feelings.

If you really want to get deeper into this separation, I recommend the philosophical distinction between Logic and Emotions in philosophy. Read David Hume's theories in contrast to Immanuel Kant, a very sophisticated analysis that answers everything. To summarize it, logic is the lack of feelings and emotions because the latter is not reasonable. Make the robot rely on logical solutions and perfection rather than wishes or desires for example.

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  • "I am sorry there, but anger, fear and sadness aren't emotions, those are called feelings"" Dictionary.com disagrees with you, dictionary.com/browse/emotion : "2) any of the feelings of joy, sorrow, fear, hate, love, etc."
    – user54131
    Aug 19, 2022 at 5:26
  • That dictionary can disagree as much as it wants, psychoanalysis says different, my experience says different. Feelings are conscious, emotions are subconscious, those that disagree with such have more disagreements, we all know the fight..
    – user56123
    Aug 19, 2022 at 14:36
  • Definitions that are only valid within the field of psychoanalysis have very little sway in the real world. But if you want to ignore what words mean to regular people and insist on your jargon, I certainly can't stop you. -- Either way, I think this answer could be improved by stating that it is made from the position of psychoanalysis, and maybe explicating more how the distinction made there between emotion and feelings can be useful to answering the question.
    – user54131
    Aug 19, 2022 at 19:39
  • Do we wanna remain as regular people or do we want the truth, you're making psychoanalysis seems as we're talking about unimportant things, I will edit the answer and explain more, you are right..
    – user56123
    Aug 19, 2022 at 22:07

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