Design a Personality: The Psychology Behind Your Characters’ Emotions

Emotion is a core part of being human. You experience it every day and you pump your stories full of it.

But what different emotions are there, are they the same within cultures and between them, and what biases might influence your emotional recognition?

Primordial Emotions

Hunger, thirst, pain—though you might not immediately think of these as emotions in the traditional sense, they’re classed as such in psychology. They’re hard-wired into you and let you know when something isn’t right in your body.

Basic Emotions

One step up from primordial emotions, there are the basic emotions. These are assumed to be universal across humans; when you see a face expressing one of the six basic emotions, you should recognise it, no matter where in the world you’re from. They include:

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Disgust
  • Surprise
  • Happiness
  • Sadness

Self-Conscious Emotions

At the top of the ladder, you have self-conscious emotions, like pride, empathy, shame, guilt, embarrassment and envy. You need to have a sense of self and be able to evaluate it to feel self-conscious emotions. Expressions of these emotions varies more between cultures and so, what one person may recognise as shame, another may not recognise at all.

Personality And Emotional Recognition

The ability to recognise certain emotions and the amount of attention you pay to them can be influenced by several factors. One is personality. Having a high level of neuroticism (covered in Design a Personality: Building Rock-Solid Character Traits) can cause a bias towards fearful expressions—you pay attention to fearful faces more and can spot them more readily than those low in neuroticism.

Applying Theory to Fiction

‘Showing’ your characters’ emotions

The expressions for the six basic emotions are ones that everyone can recognise and so your characters, regardless of cultural background, should have a sense of what they mean when they see them. This is particularly useful for ‘showing’ emotion, rather than ‘telling’ it. For example, don’t tell the reader a character is disgusted; have her wrinkle her nose, curl her lip, furrow her brow.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi is a fantastic resource for writers looking for creative ways to ‘show’ an emotion, rather than ‘tell’ it.

The link to personalities

If you have a character with high levels of neuroticism, then consider making them more alert to negative facial expressions, such as fear and anger.

If your character already is hyper-sensitive to fearful or angry expressions, then perhaps they’re high in neuroticism? Find out what this means for them, and what other personality traits they may be high in, right here.