Robert Plutchik, professor emeritus at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, identified eight primary emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust, and joy. I’ve seen similar lists from experts as varied as Donald Maass and Tony Robbins. Some are a little longer, include a few other emotions, but looking at this list . . . I can see it. This makes sense to me, and anyway it gives us a place to start to talk about the emotions that motivate or drive our characters. In this series of posts we’ll get into each of these eight emotions and how they can help drive your narrative forward and infuse it with the humanity your characters need to connect with readers.
This week . . .
Anger is an emotion characterized by antagonism toward someone or something you feel has deliberately done you wrong.
Anger can be a good thing. It can give you a way to express negative feelings, for example, or motivate you to find solutions to problems.
But excessive anger can cause problems. Increased blood pressure and other physical changes associated with anger make it difficult to think straight and harm your physical and mental health.
We all know what anger is—we all know what all these emotions are, in fact. We’ve experienced them all, for good or ill, over and over again. It’s part of what it means to be human.
But beyond that, we’ve all seen anger brought up out of the mix to take a leading role in the presentation of a character.
Take the Hulk for example.
This long-lived, much loved Marvel superhero begins with the basic premise that, thanks to the careful application of gamma rays, anger can transform you into a monster. He was angry first and that’s why the gamma rays turned him into a “giant green rage monster.” It could also be read that Banner was a generally normal and reasonably well adjusted guy and it was the gamma rays that somehow selected anger as the trigger. Would the gamma rays have transformed Bruce Banner into a “small pink joy monster” if he was joyful at the time of the explosion? However you slice it, or however various Marvel writers have spun it over the years, Bruce Banner’s entire character arc is about controlling his anger and focusing it.
Anger uncontrolled, and he turns into a monster that hurts people and destroys cities. By controlling his anger, and hence his transformations, he becomes a monster that helps people . . . and destroys cities.
In the Marvel Universe, like the Godzilla Universe, cities get destroyed either way.
Lest you think Stan Lee was the first to conceive of a character whose primary emotional essence is anger, consider Euripides, who wrote Medea 2447 years ago as a warning against anger, which is seen as a force of nature not unlike a hurricane:
A frightening woman; no one who makes an enemy of her will carry off an easy victory…Her mood is cruel, her nature dangerous, her will fierce and intractable
…It is no trifling matter that can end a rage like hers.
In this case anger, as a primary emotion, is seen as a bad thing, as something to be overcome:
Know this, I will no further dispute this point with thee. But, if thou wilt of my fortune somewhat take for the children or thyself to help thy exile, say on; for I am ready to grant it with ungrudging hand, yea and to bend tokens to my friends elsewhere who shall treat thee well. If thou refuse this offer, thou wilt do a foolish deed, but if thou cease from anger the greater will be thy gain.
Anger survives well into contemporary science fiction and fantasy, as evidenced by this review of Black Sun Rising by C.S. Friedman posted at bestfantasybooks.com, which pointed to anger as one of the features of this dark fantasy world:
One of the best characters would be the world itself—its a twisted world, literally powered by the imagination. Magic itself comes from the fae, which is pure thought; dark emotions such as pain, anger, suffering, rape, and death feed the Fae and literally bring to life these imaginings, which take the form of monsters. Death, tragedy, and suffering are scattered throughout the novel; this world is a dark place and the story never lets you forget it.
Clearly the reviewer was comfortable with setting anger along with nothing but the most negative “dark emotions”: pain, suffering, rape, and death. This tends to follow from our shared cultural view of anger as a negative emotion. The Dalai Lama said:
When reason ends, then anger begins.
Therefore, anger is a sign of weakness.
Buddhism often discusses anger as something to be first recognized then curbed, if not eliminated entirely. Friedman’s approach would put anger purely on the side of the villain, but like Bruce Banner, a Buddhist hero can start from a place of unbridled anger then work his way along a path of enlightenment (you might call this a “character arc”) and end in a place where his anger has been controlled or eliminated. For more of the Buddhist view, take a look at the story “The Anger-eating Demon.”
Still, I think we do have the ability to separate anger out from things like pain and suffering, and there’s some thought that’s been put into not just controlling or eliminating anger but harnessing it. After all, the Emperor urged Luke Skywalker to get in touch with his anger and gain power from it . . . but then that was the Dark Side talking, wasn’t it? How about Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, in Men’s Health:
An anger fantasy should be strictly contained within your head. You don’t want the anger churning inside your head to spill over onto the waitress who happens to interrupt you, or onto your mother who happens to call. An anger fantasy has no bearing on reality. You are doing in your head what you don’t want to be doing in reality—and that’s the point. So know what it is and keep it inside.
Other than that, go for it. Shout at, spit at, break with a bat, gouge out with a fork, hack at with a machete, dismember, set fire to, bury alive to your heart’s content. I’ve been doing it for years. Yet you’d meet me and think, What a nice guy. So friendly and genuine. And I am a nice guy. I don’t like guns, I’ve never swung a fist at anyone, I like Gandhi and Mandela as much as anyone, I’m a vegetarian, I’m a liberal. Hell, I’m even Canadian.
Before you take Yann Martel up on the Anger Fantasy challenge, you may want to check out the extremely disturbing HBO documentary Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop, which explores the sometimes fine, sometimes terrifying line between fantasy and reality.
In her Writer’s Digest article “Creating Emotional Frustration in Your Characters,” Rachael Scheller takes anger one step farther, to its foregone conclusion:
Quick–what is the most important emotion your fictional characters feel? Love? Hate? Anger? Desire? All of these are critical. Love for a person or desire to attain a goal drives most plots. Hatred or anger drives most of the rest. Anna Karenina loves Vronsky; the wicked queen hates Snow White; Ahab is furious at Moby Dick; Nero Wolfe desires to solve murders. However, despite this impressive list, the most important emotion in fiction is something else.
I say this because, without frustration, there is no plot. Frustration means that someone is not getting what he wants, and that’s what makes a story work.
So if anger gives birth to frustration, which leads to story, and both heroes (The Hulk) and villains (Medea) can come from a place, primarily, of anger, then that means this key emotion is a tool you can use on both sides of your narrative. Your hero can be angry with your villain, and your villain can be angry with your hero.
In The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction I defined a hero as someone whose motivations we understand and whose methods we find inspirational, and a villain whose motivations we understand but whose methods we find abhorrent. Villains, like Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi (spoiler alert!) can be redeemed if they finally either shed their anger or redirect it in a constructive way, or they can die pissed off like the terrorist falling to his death at the end of Die Hard.
But a hero is going to have to either take the Buddhist path and identify then work past his anger, or I guess it might be fair to say take the Western approach and be as angry as you want, short of violence.
I would caution you, however, against taking the sadly all too real stance that there’s such a thing as “righteous indignation,” that anger over an attack either real or perceived, trivial or serious, is reason enough to exact revenge. That might lead to the dystopian world of a decade and a half of continuous war in retribution for an a single act of mass murder. And pointing that out will get you booed at fundraisers like at least one Buddhist we know.