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.

If you haven’t been following along you can click here to start at the beginning.

This week . . .


In her Psychology Today article “The Value of Sadness,” Lisa Firestone describes sadness as “a natural part of life and is usually connected with certain experiences of pain or loss or even a meaningful moment of connection or joy that makes us value our lives.”

Maybe more so than the other emotions we’re covering in this series, the label “sad” can be attached not just to characters, but to the novel (or story or movie, etc.) itself. That was a sad story, a sad song, etc. It’s much more rare that we say things like, “That was an angry story,” or “That was an . . . anticipatory . . . ? novel.”

Though I’m not sure most people tend to equate science fiction and fantasy with “sad” stories, Amanda Yesilbas and Charlie Jane Anders of io9 made a list of “10 Great Science Fiction Novels with Go-Back-To-Bed Depressing Endings,” and the two saddest books I’ve ever read in my life are science fiction and fantasy novels.


One of the most vivid memories I have from childhood is laying on the living room couch reading The Runaway Robot by Lester Del Rey. It’s the last “children’s book” I remember reading before pushing myself into “adult” science fiction with a detour into comic books. But I remember actually tearing up, my throat tightening. This story of a kid who has to leave his robot behind when his family moves back to Earth from Ganymede frickin’ shredded me. That, and the TV Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer are two of the saddest experiences of my life, leaving me to wonder to this day why children’s media always seems to be so sad, full of dead parents and long goodbyes.

I honestly have no answer for that, but even as a kid I railed against it—and why not? My own kids have the same wounding experiences over different media. My daughter crumbled under the emotional weight of the Pokémon episode “Bye-bye Butterfree” and my son struggled valiantly to keep it together at the end of The Iron Giant.

Whether The Runaway Robot scarred me or helped define me is still an open question, but look at how this sad science fiction book has stuck in my head when I don’t have the slightest memory of any other book I read that year. I’m not even sure what year it was, and how old I was. I just remember buying a copy of the book at a Scholastic Book Fair at school then being riveted by it.

Many years later—decades later—after hearing a lot of good things about The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue I had that with me when I flew from Seattle to Indianapolis for Gen Con—not sure what year. I can admit now that I wasn’t fully engaged in that convention. I spent most of the weekend looking for quiet, out of the way spots in hotel lobbies to read The Stolen Child. I rarely read on airplanes but I read all the way back, and even kept reading through landing, which for this recovering aviophobic is a huge deal. I chose to finish reading that book instead of using my complete attention to psychically will the plane to a safe landing. If you haven’t read The Stolen Child, consider this an assignment. It’s brilliantly written and emotionally devastating.

That having been said, if you had asked me yesterday if I like “sad books” I would have said no.

But, it turns out, I do.

Even if your primary emotional through-line for your story isn’t sadness, per se, this powerful and useful emotion can still form a big part of any character’s emotional life. We have all felt sad at one point or another—it would be the most charmed of lives if you could avoid it entirely—so we can instantly relate to a character who seems sad.

H.P. Lovecraft went right at sadness in the opening paragraph of his 1921 story “The Outsider,” setting a tone for the whole piece:

Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness. Wretched is he who looks back upon lone hours in vast and dismal chambers with brown hangings and maddening rows of antique books, or upon awed watches in twilight groves of grotesque, gigantic, and vine-encumbered trees that silently wave twisted branches far aloft. Such a lot the gods gave to me—to me, the dazed, the disappointed; the barren, the broken. And yet I am strangely content, and cling desperately to those sere memories, when my mind momentarily threatens to reach beyond to the other.

And of course the old idea of science fiction as heroic potboiler with the all-but-emotionless hero is long debunked, we still seem to be a little reluctant to see this emotion in a genre hero. Leave it to Philip K. Dick to show us a character surprised by his own emotional state in the novel Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said:

Why does a man cry? he wondered. Not like a woman; not for that. Not for sentiment. A man cries over the loss of something, something alive. A man can cry over a sick animal that he knows won’t make it. The death of a child: a man can cry for that. But not because things are sad.

As with the other key emotional states, characters can be defined by sadness?

“She was a genius of sadness,” Jonathan Safran Foer wrote in Everything is Illuminated, “immersing herself in it, separating its numerous strands, appreciating its subtle nuances. She was a prism through which sadness could be divided into its infinite spectrum.”

Sadness can be a motivation for your protagonist.

Susan Piver wrote in her article “The Importance of Sadness” at

“When you look out at this world, what you see will make you very, very sad. This is good. You are seeing clearly. Genuine sadness gives rise, spontaneously, naturally, completely, to the wish—no, the longing—to be of benefit to others. When your wish to help is rooted in love (i.e. sadness), it is effective. There is no question.”

Heroes need to experience empathy. If a person is incapable of experiencing empathy that person is, by definition, a sociopath. So if your protagonist is confronted with a painful situation, is outraged or wronged, sadness can lead to a desire to do something about it, to right a wrong before anyone else can be made to feel sad for the same reason.

A slightly trickier one. Can sadness motivate a villain?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “Every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not; and often times we call a man cold when he is only sad.”

What evil can be done by a sad person unable to work through his or her pain?


—Philip Athans

Part 4: Disgust

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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