Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Fiona Harper on writing: Emotional triggers

I recently watched the TV series Lie to Me and found it absolutely fascinating. It's based on the real-life work of scientist Paul Ekman, who has spent decades studying emotion and analysing the way we show emotion in our facial expressions. I've always been interested by the way we ‘leak’ emotion through our body language, and as a writer, it's handy to have some of that knowledge at my disposal, so I recently bought Ekman’s book, Emotions Revealed: Understanding Faces and Feelings.

I'd been hoping for some ideas to help make my characters' body language fresher and more realistic, but as I started reading I discovered a wealth of information about emotion itself, and lots of it was very familiar. I discovered that I’d often written about certain emotional reactions and situations through observation and instinct, but now I was discovering the scientific theories behind those emotions.

As I learned a little bit more about how and why and when we get emotional, I realised being able to understand these processes might help me in my writing too, so I’ve decided to do a series of posts on emotion, sharing some of the interesting facts I discovered.

As an introduction, we’re going to look at when we get emotional. Ekman has identified nine different situations that trigger an emotional response.

I've critiqued many manuscripts for aspiring writers, and one of the common flaws is that the characters' emotional responses often don't seem logical, appropriate or realistic. Hopefully, understanding these different triggers can help us identify where our characters' emotional reactions are stemming from and help us make them more believable.

1. Automatic appraising mechanisms
Basically, that's a scientific way of saying that sometimes we have an automatic emotional reaction to a situation. For example, if we're driving and a car cuts in front of us we have an instant and automatic fear reaction. These automatic emotional responses are designed to be helpful. Before our brain can even process what is going on, our foot has hit the brake and we have turned the steering wheel, possibly saving our life.

What's interesting about these automatic responses is that some are universal, like the one described above, and that other automatic reactions are learned from experience or a cultural.Knowing what your character's automatic triggers are, and if they are having a knee-jerk emotional response to something that has bypassed their thinking processes can be useful information.

2. Reflective appraisal
The example of the near-miss car accident above was a situation where the threat was very clear. Sometimes we are in situations that have less obvious emotional triggers, and it's only as we analyse and process the situation that we start to get emotional. However, it's interesting to note that once we done this, the automatic response takes over.
For example, if we're talking to someone and we see that they are hiding something behind their back, but first we might be curious, but if their behaviour becomes hostile and aggressive, we might start to become concerned, and if they reveal they are holding a weapon we may well experience an automatic fear response.

3. Memory of past emotional experiences
For example, thinking about something sad that happened int he past may make us sad. It's no surprise to us as writers that revisiting past trauma or past joy will create an emotional response. It's a useful tool in the writer's kit. I can't remember how many times I've used a present a situation mirroring a past experience to create an emotional reaction in one of my characters.

4. Imagination
We can use our imagination to create scenes that make us emotional. Again, this is no surprise to writers!

5. Talking about past emotional events.
I'm sure this has happened to all of us. We start talking about something that has happened in the past, and find ourselves caught up in the emotions of that event. This can be helpful, for example, talking a situation out with a friend or counsellor, but it can also cause us trouble. Sometimes we think we've gained enough emotional distance from an argument to talk through it rationally, but when we start to have that all-important conversation with the other party suddenly we find ourselves getting angry or upset again and the whole thing dissolves into conflict. Knowing just what emotions a key conversation will unearth for your character can be very helpful!

6. Empathy
Knowing that emotion comes from empathy helps writers not only work with characters within a story, but we’re also using this to create that important emotional connection between characters and readers. We all know that when readers care about the people who populate our books, they will experience the emotion of the story that much more vividly.

7. Being informed about what to get emotional about
This can come from our culture, from our parents and other significant people in our lives. Sometimes we were instructed clearly about these emotional reactions, often from an early age, but sometimes we pick these responses up unwittingly when we adopt the emotional patterns of the people around us.
What have your characters learned from the emotional landscape they grew up in? Who has shaped their emotional development? Was it helpful or is it something they will have to overcome?

8. Violation of social norms
We will offer an experience emotion when someone else has violated an important social norm. However, norms are not universal. They may be shared by nations and cultures, or by much smaller groups, such as families or groups of friends. Knowing what our characters boundaries are, and what they consider to be a crossing of those boundaries is incredibly useful to writers.

9. Assuming the appearance of emotion
During his research Ekman discovers, unexpectedly, that using his facial muscles to mimic certain emotional expressions actually treated the emotions themselves.
Interestingly enough, I watched a news programme a while ago which described people who had cosmetic procedures on their face, such as Botox or fillers, were reporting feeling increasingly less emotional. Not being able to move their faces as fully, and therefore express emotions fully, was having an impact on their emotional life!

A good story is one that has strong conflict. And what does conflict often create in our characters? Emotion. Knowing where that emotion is stemming from, whether it’s an involuntary response, something from their past, or something they’ve been trained to feel emotional about, can really help us pinpoint those emotions and be specific about what they are feeling and why. 

I’ve discovered along my writing journey that being specific about the emotion our characters feel – how that particular person is experiencing and processing emotion, and what’s making it unique for them – brings a richness to the character, which in turn elicits a greater emotional response from readers. So next time your characters’ are having an emotional moment, stop and think, then have a little dig down and discover what the root of that emotion is, where is it coming from exactly. I promise you won’t be disappointed with what you find.

Fiona's latest book, The Guy To Be Seen With, is part of Harlequin's brand new line, KISS, and is out now

London's most eligible guy-finally snared?  

Who can forget gorgeous adventurer Daniel Bradford? Especially after this commitment-phobe's on-air rejection of his girlfriend's marriage proposal sparked a scandal! But some people love a challenge. With Daniel suddenly back on the market, all of London's single ladies are on the lookout. Yet he's shown no inclination to get caught by anyone...until now.

So just who is special enough to catch his attention? Our sources reveal she's strong-willed blonde bombshell Chloe Michaels, orchid specialist and Daniel's new colleague. And rumor has it that with this tough cookie, London's very own Indiana Jones is in for the-romantic-adventure of a lifetime!


  1. Back in about 2004, I became really interested in this. It is why I read Peoplewatching and another book on body language. It is fascinating stuff. And we should always remember that we are in the emotion delivery business.

  2. Thank you Fiona - fascinating stuff. Just what I don;t need - another book I'd love to read!

  3. It's quite information dense, Kate, but I'm finding it fascinating. I've now got onto the section about facial expressions and how to read them, and it's such detailed stuff, but totally absorbing.