Primary and Secondary Emotions Can Unlock Your Characters

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Most of us are familiar with the idea that characters need to be multidimensional to be believable. E.M. Forster gave us terms for this discussion, ‘flat’ and ‘round’ characters, but the term ‘well-rounded’ predates Forster by at least a century, and the discussion of emotional complexity is as old as history. People simply aren’t simple, and flat characters have way less appeal than complex ones.

This multidimensionality includes the multiple layers of often-conflicting emotions that people experience due to our cognitive and cultural complexity. We don’t just emote; we respond to our own emotions.

We don’t simply experience emotions – we react to them.Click To Tweet

That response is generally an unseen process, but to write emotionally realistic characters, it’s something an author needs to understand. That’s where primary and secondary emotions come in.

What are primary and secondary emotions?

Depending on where you are in the world, there are as many as 48 to 128 recognized emotions. The most basic of these – fear, joy, disgust – are instantaneous; our instinctual reaction to the immediate moment. As part of coping with and contextualizing these emotions, humans also experience what are known as secondary emotions.

For example, a person experiencing fear or disgust at someone they perceive as different might cope with that negative, instinctual reaction by reacting with outrage, punishing the subject, or by feeling smug in their superiority, recontextualizing upsetting feelings as something positive.

There’s no total agreement on which emotions are primary and which are secondary, though Paul Ekman’s list of six (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise) has been influential enough that works such as the incredibly popular Inside Out (itself now used as a therapy tool) seem built on its foundations.

In anger management, differentiating between primary and secondary emotions is a technique used to defuse moments of rage – if you understand the primary emotion, the root feeling, you can avoid being steered by the secondary reaction. Someone who copes with prejudice by feeling superior, for example, is never actually going to rid themselves of that fear of the different, whereas someone confronting that fear might eventually reach a stage where it’s no longer felt.

Understanding emotional reaction means understanding your character’s true goals.Click To Tweet

This differentiation is so important when writing believable characters because it presents the true motivation behind their behavior. When we only see the secondary emotion, a person’s actions can seem as if they make no sense. In the above example, for instance, why would someone who feels superior to another person bother to denigrate them? The answer is that the action doesn’t stem from the emotion, but rather both are reactions to the primary emotion – both efforts to salve the fear.

In this way, understanding primary and secondary emotions describes the hidden process by which an immediate reaction governs the actions your character takes, as well as how you can communicate that process to the reader. Why does Kevin’s alienation from his mother in We Need to Talk About Kevin lead him to hurt others? By the end of the book, Kevin isn’t sure himself, but the reader gets it, because Lionel Shriver shows enough of his characters’ inner lives to show not just how they react, but what they’re reacting to.

Primary and secondary emotions in fiction

Let’s take an in-depth look at a single passage to explore how primary and secondary emotions influence characterization.

In the midst of friends, home, and kind parents, she was alone. To how many people can any one tell all? Who will be open where there is no sympathy, or has call to speak to those who never can understand? Our gentle Amelia was thus solitary. She had no confidante, so to speak, ever since she had anything to confide. She could not tell the old mother her doubts and cares; the would-be sisters seemed every day more strange to her. And she had misgivings and fears which she dared not acknowledge to herself, though she was always secretly brooding over them. Her heart tried to persist in asserting that George Osborne was worthy and faithful to her, though she knew otherwise. How many a thing had she said, and got no echo from him! How many suspicions of selfishness and indifference had she to encounter and obstinately overcome! To whom could the poor little martyr tell these daily struggles and tortures? Her hero himself only half understood her. She did not dare to own that the man she loved was her inferior; or to feel that she had given her heart away too soon. Given once, the pure bashful maiden was too modest, too tender, too trustful, too weak, too much woman to recall it.

– William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair’s best-known character, Becky Sharp, is a renowned masterpiece of complexity. I want to look at this description of Amelia, though, as a way of remembering that even lesser characters need to be fully developed.

When depicting emotion, start with the primary feeling and then depict a reaction.Click To Tweet

The first sentence, ‘In the midst of friends, home, and kind parents, she was alone,’ is evocative for anyone who’s ever felt alone in a crowd. It’s a whole different level of loneliness, accompanied by a degree of confusion and a sense of invisibility. There’s a touch of gratitude, too, in acknowledging that the parents are ‘kind.’

On top of that, she feels misunderstood, undervalued, and distrusting: ‘Who will be open where there is no sympathy, or has call to speak to those who never can understand?’ In being stripped of her voice, she may also feel shame, inferiority, anxiety, or irritability.

She feels full, bursting: ‘She had no confidante, so to speak, ever since she had anything to confide.’

She’s isolated from her family, and probably has a sense of abjection as a result: ‘She could not tell the old mother her doubts and cares; the would-be sisters seemed every day more strange to her.’

She has ‘misgivings’ and ‘fears.’

She’s in self-denial: ‘…she dared not acknowledge to herself.’

She’s holding a secret, which leads to anxiety. She’s ‘brooding.’

She’s conflicted: ‘Her heart tried to persist in asserting that George Osborne was worthy and faithful to her, though she knew otherwise.’ There’s also a tinge of optimism in here – wanting to believe that he’s worthy and faithful, and a sense of self-distrust whereby her heart persists in wanting to believe something that her head knows to be false.

She is suspicious and she feels disregarded (when he shows ‘selfishness and indifference’).

There’s obstinacy.

She feels tortured.

She’s afraid (‘did not dare to own’) and in love (‘the man she loved’) and superior (‘was her inferior’) and embarrassed over feeling superior (she won’t admit it).

She feels regret (‘she had given her heart away too soon’).

There’s modesty, tenderness, trust, and weakness. There’s gender identification and adaptation to society’s standards.

How much more powerful than saying, ‘She was lonely and confused.’ This short passage conveys a tumult of emotions, evocative of real-life experience, each cascading into the next. Amelia isn’t just a placeholder in a plotline. She’s a real person.

The passage also illustrates that character development doesn’t require a ton of space. People worry about spending too much time on character description and losing readers’ interest; but in this one short paragraph, we have a lifetime of experience, plus insights into some other characters, plus insights into the society in which Amelia lives. It’s efficient and effective, using emotive layering to bring Amelia to life. Note: it’s hard to tell which emotions are primary and which are secondary. This is also realistic.

As homework, choose a literary character and analyze their emotional complexity. Fun choices might be: Peter Pan, Anne (of Green Gables), Julien Sorel, or Bathsheba Everdene. Bonus points if you quote a passage full of primary and secondary emotions in the comments below.

Exceptions in characterization

Flat or one-dimensional characters aren’t always a bad thing. However, flat characters should exist in service of something else – be it humor, plot, social discourse, another character, whatever – they are not the pièce de résistance.

Huckleberry Finn is scrappy and incorrigible yet sweet and innocent; impertinent yet compassionate. Layered on top of all his primary emotions, there are socially driven secondary emotions: sometimes a desire to be good and avoid hell, other times a to-hell-with-hell tenacity. This more complex character is explored partly through the inclusion of emotionally flat adult characters who work particularly well since, seen through the eyes of a child, their emotional simplicity is realistic.

See if you can think of any flat characters that work and why and share them in the comments below.

How to nail primary and secondary emotions

There are a number of ways to incorporate primary and secondary emotional layering into your writing.

1. Read, read, read

Keeping the above notes in mind and look for emotional complexity as you read. And read. A lot. Keep notes on what you learn so you can incorporate your findings into your own writing practice.

2. Roleplay

Take whatever circumstances your character is facing, consider their background and personality, and immerse yourself. Let’s say one of your characters is falling in love. Primary emotion: joy. Be present with your character. When was the last time you felt unadulterated joy? What was it about? Was it love? Success at work? The birth of a child? Summiting a mountain? How long did it last? What detracted from the emotion or led to its dissolution? Were you eventually afraid of losing what you had obtained, or did you in fact lose it? Did your feelings eventually diminish due to weariness or the passage of time or jealousy of someone in an even better position? What in your background or future informed your response to your happiness? Did the happiness grow?

Now, back to your character. He is falling in love. What is his history? Has he ever been in love before? If not, will he be nervous? Full of anticipation? Anxious? Confused? If so, how did it end up the last time, and how will that impact him now? Will he be hesitant? Prone to jealousy? Fearful? Confident? Prepared? Do his parents or other people close to him have a good relationship? If so, will that lend strength or optimism to his feeling of joy? If not, will it add apprehension or distrust? Use your own life experience, and that of your character, to inform what that reaction (secondary emotion) will be.

3. Experiment

When you’re not in the middle of a story, playing around with character ideas can be fun (and fruitful). Keep a journal full of character ideas, and add some emotional layering to your imaginative journaling. Some emotional pairings are obvious:

When we’re startled because someone jumps out a corner and scares us, a secondary emotion is anger.

When we feel proud of a friend for their accomplishments, we may also feel jealous or a sense of solidarity, depending on how we ourselves are doing.

When we feel disgust for something and don’t want to let go of that disgust, we are likely to experience a process of justification and resulting confidence.

When we feel fear, we might respond with courage or determination.

Explore how one emotion inspires others for deeper characterization.Click To Tweet

Google a long list of emotions. Put them together in random pairs and write scenarios in which those emotions interplay. Give us a sample of your work in the comments below.

Go forth and emote

Writing believable characters is a lot of hard work. When we are writing in the zone, we trend toward simplicity and clichés. That’s fine in service of getting the plot onto the page. But when you go back and self-edit, every moment of emotion should be evaluated through in-depth role-play so that you can convey a realistic person rather than a perfunctory caricature.

I always love hearing from you. Please, feel free to jot down your thoughts in the comments, either in response to the article, or based on the homework exercises above. Or, for more great advice, check out How To Handle Grief In Your Novel and Surprising Ways To Use Happiness In Storytelling (And How To Get Them Right).


6 thoughts on “Primary and Secondary Emotions Can Unlock Your Characters”

  1. Hi Alex,
    just a quick note before I dive into the homework for my weekend, among other. I’m always impressed by how much you inspire me and bring up the exact subject I so badly need to learn about.
    Thank you from my heart and soul, and also from the level of “Peace of mind”
    to have the support from someone knowing, as you are.
    🙂 <3 🙂 A.

    1. Rebecca Langley

      Hi, Annamarie.

      Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m glad to know the article inspired you, and that it hit on something you needed to hear about right now.

      Best wishes,
      Rebecca Langley

  2. Hello Rebecca,

    very informative! I knew that people (and characters, who are after all nothing more than fictional people) can several emotions at the same time: For instance, a woman can become interested about a person yet when you look closer, there’s just as much lust for that other person involved as there is interest for that other person, if not more so.

    But the concept of Primary and Secondary emotions is News for me. But it sounds intersting, so I’ll have to research this new concept.

    Best wishes,

    1. Rebecca Langley

      Hi, Andreas.

      I’m happy to hear you found the article informative. Let us know if your research overturns anything of interest!

      Best wishes,
      Rebecca Langley

  3. Hi Rebecca,
    This is so helpful. The interplay of primary and secondary emotions will be the focus in my mind as I write the story of my immigrant great-grand aunt and her husband. She developed schizophrenia after coming to the US in the 1870s, losing her parents, marrying, and having children. Over time, her illness became severe. They lost their homestead farm and she was institutionalized in an asylum for 42 years until her death. He moved out of state with the children after her delusions were so severe that she no longer recognized him and was violent to them during their visitations. I have his letters to her and to the hospital demonstrating his love for her and his suffering at this tragic turn in their lives. I want my story not only to tell the events that occurred but to tell/show what I imagine to be the changing emotional experience for each individually and between them from the beginning of their relationship to the end of their lives. Your article will provide a base of operations for that endeavor. Thanks!

    1. Rebecca Langley

      Hi, Mark.

      Wow, what an incredible story! Thanks for the teaser… now please send me the full story when you’ve written it. 🙂

      I’m so glad you found the article supportive, and I do hope it helps you in the writing process. You have a fascinating and challenging project on your hands. Best of luck!

      Best wishes,
      Rebecca Langley

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