Author, Teacher, Psychologist and Speaker

Pulling Your Character’s Emotional Trigger

Posted by on Apr 24, 2015 in Blog, On Writing | 0 comments




What’s your emotional trigger? The thing that stops you in your tracks, makes your heart pound or stop, and blurs the pages of the morning paper? A lost child? A hurt puppy? A dying grandmother?




Emotions are among the most researched of psychological conditions. The word “emotion” dates back to the 1500’s, deriving from the French émouvoir, which means “to stir up”. But a journey back through history, even before that time, demonstrates the prevalence of that human state.

You can’t invent new emotions to go along with your fictional world. Given that your emotional construct will reflect the real world, you’ll rely on two types of emotions: primary emotions and secondary emotions. Your primary emotion will develop from your inciting incident. This is the emotion that propels all of your main characters’ actions. How they display and deal with the primary emotion will be the backbone of your story. Your secondary emotions are those emotions your characters demonstrate as they strive to resolve the conflict brought on by the primary emotion. For example, they may experience an inciting incident that creates a fear response. Fear is your primary emotion. As a response to that fear, they become angry and driven to conquer their fear. Anger is your secondary emotion. As you structure your story, you typically have one primary emotion and several secondary emotions. This adds the depth to your characters and story that gives your readers an enriching and fulfilling reading experience.




All good fiction writing has at its heart the goal “to stir up”, whether it is an adventure, a fantasy, a mystery, or a romance.

Emotions – feelings, moods, behavior – are reactions and responses to stimuli. These stimuli may include certain events, stressors, behavior of others, or even our own inner thoughts and conflicts, attitudes, frustrations, etc. For example, the emotion of sadness may be caused by the loss of something or someone very important. Anger may be precipitated by someone taking something very important from you.




Rational-emotive psychologist Albert Ellis designed the following Model of Emotion:

A (Activating Event) + B (Belief) = C (Consequence)

Based on the human belief that our desires must and should be fulfilled, our emotional responses can be an irrational reaction to those stimuli.

For example, if your protagonist (Let’s call him Brad) wanted more than anything to ask the new girl out on a date and she declined, this might be his emotional response:

A (Dinner invitation declined) + B (Because I am unlikeable) =
C (Sadness, depression, feeling rejected)

Brad’s belief, whether rational or irrational, leads to his feelings of rejection and sadness. Of course, if she had accepted his invitation, the model would yield a different result.

Just as we react in our real world, we want our characters to react in our writing. And even though we all want and feel we deserve to get what we want – the job, the car, the girl – life often does not turn out that way. Enter the disturbance that will stir things up!




Take our rejected protagonist for example. When we first meet Brad in our story, he appears to be a pretty normal guy. Handsome, friendly, ambitious. Brad’s a rising attorney in a large law firm, who graduated from a major university, where he was a star quarterback on the football team. But when it comes to women, he strikes out. He’s shy and awkward. On that playing field, he lacks self-confidence. Why?

Maybe he had a girlfriend in high school that cheated on him, dumped him, and married his best friend. He never got over her. He subconsciously compares all other women to her. Now we have a character with some emotional baggage to go along with his promising career.

Enter the emotional trigger. As soon as Brad saw the attractive paralegal walk into the law library. He wanted to pursue her, take her out to dinner. But the subconscious response linked to his past experience and the subsequent arousal of his nervous system, set him on another course.

Brad felt heaviness in his chest. He was light-headed from the rush of adrenalin. A flush crept up from his neck to his cheeks. He clenched and unclenched his fists, his nails dug into his palms. Words crept out in uneven syllables, hanging…

When Brad’s attempt to get something he wanted was thwarted, it sent him spiraling into a deep depression. That moment and what he does next will become his emotional journey. And whether he responds in a positive or negative way to stimuli, his action and motivation will be propelled by emotion.

When your characters don’t get what they want, one of the first emotions they experience is frustration. It is in that moment that he or she must choose what to do in response to that setback. The choices are dependent upon what kind of person they are and where the plot will take us. The emotional response of your characters is deeply rooted in their personality.

What is Brad feeling? Anger? Sadness? Hurt? Pain? Will he lose control? Seek revenge? Will he give up and shrink back into the stacks of the library and lick his wounds? Will he take a deep breath and try again until he succeeds?

Initially, our character’s reactions to frustration are tied to learned behavior. In Brad’s case, how did he respond to the loss of his girlfriend in high school? Were there other significant emotional events in his childhood that might influence his present day reaction? Was he abandoned by someone else? Left alone? Did he feel unloved by a parent or another significant person?

Brad’s emotional journey began before we met him in our author’s mind. It has been a fusion of his external persona, i.e. successful attorney, and his internal identity, i.e. wounded child. His complete character is a combination of flaws, i.e., insecurity, depression, quick temper and strengths, i.e., intelligence, handsome appearance, integrity.




Character flaws are often learned coping mechanisms to compensate for our vulnerability. Often the direct result of not getting what we wanted or felt we deserved. Perception is reality. And when we view ourselves as insecure, unlovable, weak, our character is threatened. In Brad’s case, when he was rejected in the past, he was hurt and angry, prone to despair and depression. This is his emotional maturity level when we first meet him.

Now that we care about him, we want him to succeed. We know that there is potential for growth and transformation. As we travel with him on his journey, we see how he reacts to stimuli at each juncture. From the introduction in Act One, where we create empathy for him, with his vulnerability and flaws. We show his reactions and adjustments in the turning points when his desires and longings are thwarted thrusting him into new situations and pursuits.

Into Act Two, we show his fear and angst as he pursues his dream and his goal, facing the conflicts and failures, the progress and retreat. We describe his commitment at the point of no return when he realizes what his life would be like if he failed. And when we raise the stakes even higher for him, we paint the peak of his emotional journey as we glimpse the all or nothing moment when it seems he will not succeed. Then the emotional maturity level has grown and his reaction to stimuli has changed.

The emotional journey that your character(s) take serves to heighten the interaction between your reader and that character. The reader has been on that journey, become that persona, and experienced that growth. And that is one of the many reasons we write what we write. To fuse that emotional connection between the reader and the story.




A great resource:

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression


This piece first appeared on the SCWW Blog Post 8/31/2014.

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