Tag Archives: schadenfreude

Characterization part two – writing subtle emotions and reactions

Most writers find it easy to connect with flamboyant emotions, such as hate, anger, desire, and adoration. However, emotions have “volume,” ranging from soft to loud. Today we are looking at emotions we need to show with less noise.

mood-emotions-1-LIRF09152020Volume control is a crucial part of the overall pacing of your story. “Loud” deafens us and loses its power when it’s the only sound. However, like the opening movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, the entire range of volume can be effectively used to create a masterpiece.

Subtle reactions have power when contrasted against more forceful displays of emotion.

Low-key thoughts and feelings can go almost unnoticed. Under the surface, positive or negative vibes give us a rounded view of a character, making them less two-dimensional, a more natural person.

We’re all aware of one positive emotion that can go bad – love. When love is reciprocated, it’s a positive feeling. We all enjoy a good love story.

However, when love starts out with promise and then goes terribly wrong, you have the makings of a deep, dark story filled with possibilities. Anger, despair, revenge—these can be loud and also be subtle, brooding.

Maas_Emotional_Craft_of_FictionDark emotions, such as depression, can be shown through a character’s reactions to things that once pleased them. Perhaps they no longer find beauty in the things they once enjoyed.

What about lighter emotions? The way we feel joy ranges from mild to overwhelming, from a slight smile to an experience so profound it brings tears to one’s eyes.

Subtle emotions don’t stand out and grab the reader. But when they’re swimming just under the surface, they have impact. Subtleties color and shape the reader’s opinions about the story and the characters.

One negative aspect of our human character is our tendency to experience an uncharitable emotion known as schadenfreude. We all go through it on a personal level every now and then. Some people take great joy in it, gaining a sense of superiority. But most of us are embarrassed to admit to it.

Small, quiet emotions linger and leave an impression but are hard to articulate. It helps to include small indicators of mood such as:

  1. Anguish
  2. Anxiety
  3. Competence
  4. Confidence in their friends
  5. Cooperation
  6. Courage
  7. Decisiveness
  8. Defeat
  9. Defensiveness
  10. Depression
  11. Discovery
  12. Ethical Quandaries
  13. Group ethics
  14. Happiness
  15. Inadequacy
  16. Indecision
  17. Individual moral courage
  18. Jealousy
  19. Paranoia
  20. Powerlessness
  21. Purposefulness
  22. Regret
  23. Resistance
  24. Revelation
  25. Satisfaction
  26. Self-confidence
  27. Serenity
  28. Strength
  29. Success
  30. Sufficiency
  31. Temptation
  32. Trust
  33. Unease
  34. Weakness

These attributes are rarely spelled out, but they color how the characters interact with each other.

Some positive emotions can be more intense, yet not overpowering. Those moments can be shown by an immediate physical reaction combined with internal dialogue or conversations.

Severe emotional shock strikes us with a one-two-three punch: the disbelief/OMG moment, followed by knocking knees, shaking hands, or a shout of “No!” which is sometimes followed by disassociation.

emotion-thesaurus-et-alVisceral reactions are involuntary—we can’t stop our face from flushing or our heart from pounding. We can pretend it didn’t happen or hide it, but we can’t stop it. An internal physical gut reaction is difficult to convey without offering the reader some information, a framework to hang the image on.

We use the same one-two-three trick when describing a mild experience as we do with louder emotions.

Start with the visceral response. There will be an instant reaction. How does a “gut reaction” feel? Nausea, gut-punch, butterflies … how do you respond to internal surprises?

Emotions are felt in the chest in varying degrees, from a slight warmth or chill to a stronger heart-pounding sensation. But we’re keeping it subdued here.

Follow the visceral up with a thought-response. Whatever your style and word choices are, showing the characters’ joy or dismay makes them human. If it is a mild reaction, give it a moderate thought response. Showing small moments of relatable happiness or displeasure makes our protagonist more sympathetic.

Third, finish up with body language. That is how emotions hit us. We feel the shock and then experience the mental reaction as we process the event. Our body language reflects these things.

What if you are writing a story where one of the antagonists eventually becomes part of the protagonist’s inner circle? Including small positive thoughts early on in their narrative can foreshadow that this character may become the ally that turns the tide.

Conversely, when the antagonist begins as part of the protagonist’s inner circle, minor negatives like envy and schadenfreude in their narrative can foreshadow that this character is not what they seem.

ICountMyself-FriendsConflict keeps the protagonist from achieving their goals. Significant conflicts and emotions are easy to write about. But in real life, our smaller, more internal conflicts frequently create more significant roadblocks to success than any antagonist might present.

Large emotions are easy to visualize. But frequently, in real life, our smaller joys have a longer-lasting impact, and the memory of these can be the impetus that keeps the soldier fighting during the darkest hours.

If we contrast the loud emotions against the soft ones, the reader will experience those emotions as if they are theirs. The story detailed in that book will be more meaningful to them.


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Schadenfreude and Humor #amwriting

September is conference month for me. I just finished attending the Southwest Washington Writers’ Conference in Centralia, Washington. On Thursday the 12th of September, I will be in Seattle for four days at the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association Conference.

I will be attending a masters’ class offered by Donald Maass, on exploring depth with The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

Writers’ conferences are great ways to connect with agents and publishers, but they are also excellent ways to connect with other writers. A good conference offers the best education a new and beginning author can get.

This last Saturday, while in a seminar on injecting humor into the narrative, I reconnected with an old word that is making a resurgence in the English language: Schadenfreude (shah-den-froid-deh) This word from our Germanic roots describes the experience of happiness or self-satisfaction that comes from witnessing or hearing about another person’s troubles, failures, or humiliation.

I discovered this lovely (Deutsch) German word years ago while in college and had forgotten it. However, we are all familiar with it, as we experience it on a personal level quite often.

About schadenfreude, Via Wikipedia:

Schadenfreude is a complex emotion, where rather than feeling sympathy towards someone’s misfortune, schadenfreude evokes joyful feelings that take pleasure from watching someone fail. This emotion is displayed more in children than adults; however, adults also experience schadenfreude, though generally concealed.

In other words, we know it’s an uncharitable emotion, and we don’t like it in others. But for many centuries, popular humor had an aspect of schadenfreude to it. Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, and Jerry Lewis were all popular comedy acts of the 20th century who employed physical comedy that evoked a feeling of schadenfreude in the audience.

Since the ancient Greeks, Chinese, and Egyptians began writing plays, people have always enjoyed seeing other people’s missteps and pratfalls as long as the comedian recovers with a smile and “keeps on keepin’” on. Aristotle said that we are amused when we feel superior to others.

Dr. Adam Potthast, in his 2016 thesis on the Ethics of Slapstick Humor discussed how the recurring themes of clowns and idiots in popular slapstick comedy evoke a subtle feeling of superiority and also desensitizes us to violence. It makes bullying acceptable.

And, until recent years, dealing with bullying has been a common theme of childhood that teachers and parents, all former victims of bullying, weren’t equipped to deal with. According to Andy Luttrell in his post for Social Psych Online, psychologists believe we find something funny when it’s a “benign violation.” In other words, we are amused by things and incidents that violate the way we think things should work and which do so in a non-threatening manner.

In our current society, we don’t want to promote bullying or harassment as a positive thing in any form. But in the narrative, we do want to inspire that feeling of “payback” in the reader whenever roadblocks—instant karma—temporarily halt the Antagonist. If we can inject a little humor into a narrative, the reader feels an extra burst of endorphins and keeps turning the pages.

Exchanges of snarky dialogue (mocking irreverence and sarcasm) liven up regrouping scenes, transitions from one event to the next.

Humor and what is hilarious can vary widely from person to person. E. B. White wrote, “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process, and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.”

He was right. I can’t know what you find humorous, but I do know what makes me smile. I like snark and witty comments. I like things that surprise me, and which take a sudden detour from the expectations of normal.

Some of us have an earthy sense of humor, while others are more cerebral. For me, humor occurs when conventional rules are undercut or warped by incongruity. I have never liked slapstick as a visual comedy, but Horror authors often have it right: in the narrative, putting your characters through a little comedic disaster now and then can’t hurt.

When I was growing up, my family ran on “gallows humor” and still does, to a certain extent. We put the “fun” in dysfunctional.

That grim and ironic tendency to find humor in a desperate or hopeless situation is a fundamental human emotion.

This is why I often find myself writing gallows humor into my own work. We all need something to lighten up with now and then.

Adding a little humor can add both depth and pathos to the characters, humanizing them without your having to resort to an info dump. Each individual character’s sense of humor (or lack thereof) shows more of who they are and why the reader should care about them.

For many reasons, humor is an aspect of depth in the narrative that is impossible to fully define, but which adds a little fresh air at places where the story arc could otherwise stall.

Humor in literature occurs on an organic level, arising during the first draft before the critical mind has a chance to iron it out. Have you found yourself writing the occasional hilarity into your work? If not, why not? What holds you back from expressing this aspect of your personality in your work?

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