Conflicting Emotions

Have you ever wondered why we cry when we’re happy?  Or can laugh when we’re sad?  Scream when we’re hurt, scream when we’re mad, scream when we're excited?  All of these reactions are relatively the same, but the driving motivation is entirely different.  I don't have some psychological answer as to why a single emotion can warrant various reactions, but I do have the basic one - it's human.  And, as writers, we can use these human emotions to "flesh out" out our characters, to make them characters the reader can relate to.  (See Series Characters You Can Pinch for an in-depth discussion.)

What if your character is grieved over the loss of a loved one?  Envision yourself in their situation.  Have you had to endure the loss of someone dear to you?  I have.  And the emotions that whirl from this are a vast spectrum.  You can go from being extremely sad, to angry, to laughing at a funny memory.  And the cycle seems to continue throughout the grieving process.  Now, think of that character in your book - they've lost someone dear to them.  Put yourself in their frame of mind.  How are they feeling?

In my novel Restitution, the MC loses his wife and 6 year old daughter in a car accident.  The opening chapter is the funeral.  Chapter 2 is the gathering of people back at his house.  But during this time, even though, it would relatively be a span of a few hours, he goes from being extremely quiet, to bawling uncontrollably, to anger, and wanting to be alone while at the same knowing he needs people around.

If there is solid reasoning for your character to have a spectrum of emotion, use it to be make them tangible.  
Maybe they killed someone in self-defense.  Now, I can't relate to that one in real life.  Maybe some of you can?  But I can imagine what emotions that would conjure.  Presented with the fact, you must kill them, or be killed, your survival instinct would kick in.  But I would think you'd also experience fear - not just what if you don't succeed, but what if you do.  I think afterwards, you would feel immense remorse, yet also relief that you survived.

You can use human emotions to color all your characters, including your antagonist (villain).  Maybe they struggle with internal conflict over taking life, but feel compelled to do so.  Maybe they only have one victim, but it's driven by personal revenge.  Tap into that.

As a side line to this, how often have you experienced a range of emotions while in the same moment?  For example, I know I've felt excited, scared and nervous at the same time.  Honestly, how often do we feel only one emotion at a time?  Dwell on that thought...apply it to your characters.

This has just been a brief discussion on how infusing conflicting emotions strengthens a work of fiction, and I know the scenarios are endless.  But put yourself into your character's state of mind, feel it, touch it, be it - then you'll be utilizing this aspect of human nature to great benefit.


  1. You make good points here. We rarely do experience only one emotion at a time.

  2. Yeah, we're complicated creatures :)

  3. Again, great post. It can be difficult to convey conflicting emotions in a book. Sometimes doing so can cause confusion with a reader, so it's an area where practice is necessary. At the end of the day tho, what brings clarity is understanding the root emotion within the range and giving that top billing.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse


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