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 his New York Times article “Survival’s Ick Factor,” James Gorman wrote: “Disgust is having its moment in the light as researchers find that it does more than cause that sick feeling in the stomach. It protects human beings from disease and parasites, and affects almost every aspect of human relations, from romance to politics.”
In one of my writing classes we talked about appealing to the five senses, something I’ve often repeated because I remain convinced that if authors can touch on more than one sense we can create a more rounded experience for our readers. Though humans do tend to be visually oriented we experience the world around us through five senses, and can pick up emotional and other cues from a particularly pleasant or unpleasant smell or pleasant or disturbing sound, and so on.
In that class discussion we talked about the most difficult of the five senses to work into your writing, and that’s taste. For a number of survival-specific reasons, as James Gorman touched on above, we tend to taste things only after a full survey of our other senses. If you find something in the back of your refrigerator and it looks bad—you can see mold growing on it—you throw it away. If it looks okay—the milk is still white, say—you’ll give it a sniff. Smells sour? Down the drain it goes. Vegetables can look and smell okay but then you take the pepper out of the plastic bag and it’s slimy . . . I’m not eating it, thanks.
When I was in college I had a friend with a significant nut allergy. We were given ice cream cups at the dorm cafeteria and couldn’t immediately identify the flavor (don’t get me started on my college dorm’s version of “food”) and before risking eating nuts my friend smelled it, asked other people if we thought it had nuts in it and then—and I’ll never forget this, though it was thirty years ago—he held the cup of ice cream up to his ear.
I laughed and asked him, facetiously, “What does it sound like?” and he laughed too, not realizing he’d actually tried to hear nuts in ice cream—but desperate times call for desperate measures. If it makes a sound other than snap, crackle, and pop, I’m not eating it. Full stop.
We taste only after all four of our other senses are satisfied. Why? Because eating bad food can kill us.
But beyond this biological function, as Gorman also pointed out, disgust “affects almost every aspect of human relations, from romance to politics.” At the same time, authors are inundated by advice not to fall back on “gore” and this is often seen as a no-no in submission guidelines, and other places.
In The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, I defined the difference between action, violence, and gore in this way:
What’s the difference between action, violence, and gore?
Action describes a scene in which there is a direct physical conflict over an important person, object, or ideal that’s designed to resolve said conflict in a compelling and exciting way.
Violence is a direct physical assault by one person or power on another for the purpose of intimidation, punishment, revenge, or some other one-sided motive.
Gore is either of the first two without any motivation.
“Rape, gore, and splatter themes are terrible, deeply lazy and often poorly executed shortcuts for delivering weight and fear in a story,” Greg Ruth wrote in his Tor.com article “Why Horror is Good For You (and Even Better for Your Kids)”. “Losing them and being forced to employ more elegant and successful tools, like mood, pacing, and off-camera violence—the sorts of things one must do to make scary stories for kids—make these tales more interesting and qualitative, anyway.”
But sometimes “disgusting” can be the most powerful and effective choice.
The most “disgusting” scene I’ve ever read in a book was in the utterly brilliant and intellectually expansive The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, in which a Japanese army veteran recounts the story of his having witnessed a fellow soldier being flayed alive:
His men held Yamamoto down with their hands and knees while he began skinning Yamamoto with the utmost care. It truly was like skinning a peach. I couldn’t bear to watch. I closed my eyes. When I did this, one of the soldiers hit me with his rifle butt. He went on hitting me until I opened my eyes. But it hardly mattered: eyes open or closed, I could still hear Yamamoto’s voice. He bore the pain without a whimper—at first. But soon he began to scream.
Like the sadness that stayed with me from The Stolen Child, the pure disgust that this scene inspired—an actual physical sensation in the reading of it—has stuck with me in a visceral way. If I live to be a thousand years old, I doubt I’ll forget reading it.
But what’s significant to me about that isn’t that the book—or that scene, in particular—was so “gross,” so off-putting that it stuck in my head in a negative way, but that the pure horror of it was wrapped in a greater context that deeply informed the emotional experiences of the aging soldier and the novel’s protagonist, who listens in an almost hypnotized state to this story of physical torture that took an agonizingly long time to play out in the physical act of it, then spanned decades of continuing psychological trauma.
Murakami doesn’t want us to revel in this act of violence, as I would argue is true of the so-called “torture porn” movies (Saw, Hostel, et al.) that seem to do just that. He doesn’t want us to think this horrific murder was “cool” or even “gross,” he wants us to understand that this sort of thing happened in the context of the most brutal war in human history and that it left marks on the survivor who was forced to watch.
In the same way that when something sad happens, it’s okay for us to feel sad and try our best to grow from that experience, or that we might get angry but then find ways to direct that anger in some positive way, the same is true for what we find viscerally abhorrent. How does that experience change us, and what can we build from it?
I recently sat through two particularly difficult documentaries, both, I doubt coincidentally, having to do with the global horrors of World War II. In Death Camp Treblinka: Survivor Stories we see horrifying archival footage and hear grotesque stories from inside the notorious Nazi Death Camp. In White Light, Black Rain, we’re shown images of the visceral horror of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What heat and radiation can do to a human body is nauseating. It’s almost impossible not to look away—but like Murakami’s sanguine lieutenant in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, confronting that act of horror in some attempt to gain a shred of wisdom, we have to see what the Holocaust looked like, we have to experience what the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki left in their wake, if we’re going to make sure we never, ever, allow anything like these moments to happen again.
Since World War II no nuclear weapon was ever used on people again, but there have been genocides—more than one.
Maybe we need to be a little more disgusted.