Let me explain a bit. If we have a main character whose father dies in the course of the book, what do we expect the character to feel? If they had a good relationship, we expect the character to be grief-stricken, right? And if it was a bad relationship, we'd expect him to be glad the old bastard is gone. And to some extent, that is probably exactly the way the character feels.
However, going into great detail about an emotion the reader already understands and assumes the character will feel is about as engaging as watching Andy Griffith Show reruns every night for fifty years. Yeah, yeah, seen it. Felt it. What else ya got?
The reader is going to do 99% of the primary emotional work for us all by his/her lonesome, instinctively keying into universally shared experiences. What will make the reader take notice, what will draw him into the story at a moment we might have lost him, what will really bring our characters to life for a reader, is the use of a secondary or tertiary emotion.
Here's the hitch. How much have most of us really thought about the topic of emotion? Have we even toyed with the concept of primary emotions - the building blocks of all other emotions? Have we ever tried breaking complex emotions down into the two or more primary emotions that make up the secondary emotions?
I'm treading on a bit of thin ice here, because 'secondary emotion' has more than one connotation. In one sense, secondary emotion simply refers to the second most prominent emotion our character might feel in any given situation. In another sense, it's an emotion made up of one or more basic emotions in combination.
I would suggest to any of my fellows doing some research on primary-secondary-tertiary emotions. The list of primary emotions will probably vary slightly, but is likely to look something like this:
I've seen lists that included trust, surprise, disgust, and/or anticipation in a list of 'basic' emotions. I'm good with or without them. As I said, there will be variation in the lists.
The basic emotions then break down into more specific emotions:
- Love might mean fondness, attraction, affection, etc.
Or it combines with other basic emotions for a complex emotion:
- Trust + Fear = submission.
A tertiary emotion is a secondary emotion made more specific:
- Love can be broken down into the secondary emotions of (for instance) affection or lust; then lust could be broken down into arousal, passion, infatuation (etc).
By really becoming familiar with the range of emotions available to us, we can avail ourselves of some very specific shades of emotion to surprise and engross our readers with unexpected character depth.
Of course, this also assumes we know our characters well enough to know what lies beneath the obvious emotions they would feel when faced with all sorts of events. I will harp again on the importance of us knowing more about our characters than what color their eyes are and what they do for a living. We also need to know what issues they are passionate and opinionated about and how that force of conviction makes them react with these issues come up. We need to know what their emotional triggers are and why. We need to know what their deepest fears are - not about the outside world (like spiders or being alone in the dark) but about themselves (like the fear that they will never truly be loved). We need to know what their greatest hopes and desires are - and what they expect to get out of that thing/accomplishment/relationship. See Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs for help with this one.
There you have it, my fellows, me getting a little deep on a Monday morning. Obviously, this is a parallel universe. Or they forgot to make my coffee decaf again. What do you think?