Thursday, May 27, 2010

Plutchik's Eight Primary Emotions--Part 2

Part 2 in Daniel Smith's guest post:

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. Last time I introduced you to:

The 48 Emotions of Plutchik
EmotionLVLCompositionOppositeIntense FormMild Form
AggressivenessPrimary BlendAnger + AnticipationAlarm1
OptimismPrimary BlendAnticipation + JoyDisappointment
ContemptPrimary BlendDisgust + AngerSubmission
Alarm1Primary BlendFear + SurpriseAggressiveness
LovePrimary BlendJoy + TrustRemorse
RemorsePrimary BlendSadness + DisgustLove
DisappointmentPrimary BlendSurprise + SadnessOptimism
SubmissionPrimary BlendTrust + FearContempt
PrideSecondary BlendAnger + JoyDespair
FatalismSecondary BlendAnticipation + TrustIncredulity2
CynicismSecondary BlendDisgust + AnticipationCuriosity
DespairSecondary BlendFear + SadnessPride
GuiltSecondary BlendJoy + FearEnvy
EnvySecondary BlendSadness + AngerGuilt
Incredulity2Secondary BlendSurprise + DisgustFatalism
CuriositySecondary BlendTrust + SurpriseCynicism
DominanceTertiary BlendAnger + TrustShame
AnxietyTertiary BlendAnticipation + FearOutrage
MorbidnessTertiary BlendDisgust + JoySentimentality
ShameTertiary BlendFear + DisgustDominance
OutrageTertiary BlendSurprise + AngerAnxiety
SentimentalityTertiary BlendTrust + SadnessMorbidness
DelightTertiary BlendJoy + SurprisePessimism
PessimismTertiary BlendSadness + AnticipationDelight
Peacefulness3N/AEmotional ZeroN/A
1 - Plutchik gave "Awe" as the emotion for "Fear + Surprise". I believe "Alarm" is a better choice since the meaning of "Awe" has changed over the years.

2 - Plutchik did not include an emotion for "Anticipation + Trust" by any list I could find. Therefore, I have included "Incredulity" in this space though some disagree as to the validity of the word.

3 - Plutchik did not include the state described as "Emotional Zero" in his list. However, I believe it is useful and have therefore included "Peacefulness" to represent it.

So how can we tap into this ocean of emotion and make it flow onto our pages?
  1. The first and simplest step is to save a copy of this information for your personal reference. A fabulous poster exists courtesy of Markus Drews of the University of Applied Sciences in Potsdam, Germany. Download it here
  2. 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.
  3. 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 at least Fear and Anger are mutually-exclusive opposites.
  4. 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. In particular, use the wheel to identify and emphasize opposites (as in dialogue between two characters with different scene purposes).
  5. 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 ever so 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 toward the fiend in Rage (Intense Anger). Finding the handle to the car door provides instant relief (Serenity) as she finally starts to Calm Down (Peacefulness, Emotional Zero) knowing that soon she will be safely away. She Trusts her engine to start and run 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 up, they're all represented! While including all eight probably isn't a good thing, exploring all eight for each scene is. Thus writers can use Plutchik to explore each of the eight emotions in your scenes in order to identify which are the best emotions to use or emphasize. It works like this: We all have pet words that we tend to overuse. We often prefer certain letters of the alphabet for our characters' names too. And the same goes for emotions. In short, we're biased. 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 does not yet exist. So that will have to be the topic of another post.


Timothy Fish said...

I’m going to have to disagree with the assertion that “Alarm” is a better word than “Awe” for the combination “Fear + Surprise.” There are a couple of reasons for this. First, when I saw this stuff several years ago I was struck by how accurately awe is described by the combination of fear and surprise. Stand and look at something like Niagara Falls and you are struck by fear, realizing if you were beneath the falls you would most certainly die and surprise because it is much bigger than you imagined. We stand in awe of God, realizing that we are insignificant compared to his great power and surprise because of the things that he does with that power.

The second reason is that your assertion requires us to change the meaning of Alarm. Alarm, according to, is a sudden apprehension and fear due to a perceived danger. Apprehension and surprise don’t mesh well. Either we are expecting something to happen or we are surprised, we can’t be both.

I think the people who disagree with incredulity are right in doing so. The word itself implies disbelief, so we can’t say that it is a combination of anything that requires trust. A better combination of anticipation and trust would be faith. When we have faith we are trusting someone to do what they said they would do and anticipating that it will happen.

I think the word you’re looking for for emotional zero is stoic. I would certainly hate to use peace for emotional zero because peace and joy often come hand in hand together.

Lisa Faye Harman said...

Very insightful post! I was actually talking about this very subject with a psychologist in my writing group about a month ago. I asked her if she knew of a list of facial expressions, body language etc. and she did not. So, we discussed possibly creating one.