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 . . .


All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.

― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan


Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain.

—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets


Well, there are a couple of conflicting views from rather well-known fantasy novels.

Or are they conflicting?

This week’s emotion, trust, puzzled me at first. I admit I had some trouble defining trust as an emotion—as a feeling. To me, emotions come largely unbidden, where trust is more of a social compact or ethical decision. You choose whether or not to trust someone, but can’t necessarily choose to be afraid or not be afraid of something.

But with a little research it became clear to me that Professor Plutchik isn’t the only one who sees trust as an emotion, so let’s dive right in.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on trust begins with the sentence: “Trust is important, but it is also dangerous.”

And from that single sentence we can start to see, as fiction writers, a whole lot of story potential.

“Trusting,” the article goes on to say, “requires that we can, 1) be vulnerable to others (vulnerable to betrayal in particular); 2) think well of others, at least in certain domains; and 3) be optimistic that they are, or at least will be, competent in certain respects.”

This strikes home to me.

I read this older edition.

I read this older edition.

Years ago, I went through a period where aviophobia (fear of flying) was starting to negatively impact my life. I was starting to try to get out of travelling for work, which I could see was starting to piss off my bosses; I was a basket case, eventually going into panic attacks if a plane flew overhead. Actually getting on a plane was an ordeal of pure terror, with all the physical symptoms of a panic disorder. It was not good. I was really suffering.

But, as I tend to do with all aspects of my life, I finally found a book that I hoped (trusted?) would get me out of it. The one I chose was pretty good, Flying Without Fear by pilot Duane Brown at least made me feel a bit less like a big old baby. I recommend it if you’re struggling with this problem—it’s a big part of how I managed to get through that so now I fly, let’s say, 90% fear free, which is huge improvement, believe me.

What got me thinking, which then got me through it, was this passage on the causes of aviophobia:

The common denominator for people who don’t learn to trust themselves or others is “control.” They want to control various aspects of their lives because it is the only way they can be sure of the outcome. It is this lack of trust, based on fear that manifests itself in numerous ways, including the fear of flying. Flying involves trusting a series of people you do not know and, in fact, cannot know. That is too big a leap of faith for people with a need to control events.

Boy, is that ever me. It’s not that I think the plane is going to crash, it’s that I think I’m the better choice to pilot the thing. The fact that I have no idea how to fly a plane is irrelevant. Sitting strapped into the cargo section, with a window that can’t see forward—it’s torture. Pure torture. I can’t see where we’re going, can’t “backseat drive,” have no idea what’s coming, and so on. And no, I don’t trust a team of perfect strangers to handle that. I’ve always said: I start worrying the second someone tells me not to worry.

Having read that, embraced it, I was able to do something about it, and managed to work through a bunch of stuff that brought my rational brain back into (at least mostly anyway) control of my own thinking. Now I fly without anticipatory anxiety, sleepless nights, sweaty palms, and so on—just the normal leg cramps and irritation. You can’t read a book and cure being tall, so I remain a first class-sized traveler on a coach budget.

Anyway, that’s a personal example of trust—or a failure to trust—fueling some really negative behavior, and I needed a trusted stranger in a book to help me identify that in myself.

Right away I start thinking about similarly motivated villains: “I want to be World Emperor because I don’t think anyone else is capable of doing it.” Or: “I feel that the world is out of control with all these people in it, so let’s get rid of all the people and everything will be fine,” said the evil super-computer.

I’m not the first to come up with that, obviously.

So then what makes trust so difficult for people like me (and there are lots of us evil geniuses bent on world domination out here) to trust people? And is trusting someone the same as relying on someone? Maybe if I could just see out the front windscreen of the plane, listen in on what the flight crew is saying in the cockpit, review the flight plan and maintenance history of the aircraft . . .

Going back to that Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article:

Although people who monitor and constrain other people’s behavior and do not allow them to prove their own trustworthiness may rely on others, they do not trust them. For, while their reliance could be disappointed, it could not be betrayed. Consider that one can rely on inanimate objects, such as alarm clocks; but when they break, one is not betrayed, although one may be disappointed. Reliance without the possibility of betrayal is not trust. Thus, people who rely on one another in a way that makes betrayal impossible do not trust one another.

The article goes on to say:

Paradigmatically, trust involves being optimistic, rather than pessimistic, that the trustee will do something for us (or for others perhaps), which is in part what makes us vulnerable by trusting.

All this comes down to either the fear of, or the reality of betrayal:

People can trust too much or too little; and either way, their trust can be harmful since it can deprive them of the goods that go along with justified trust. Too much trust in particular leaves people open to betrayal, abuse, terror, and deception. And since there are people who tend to elicit too much trust from others, the question, “Why be distrusting?” is as legitimate as “Why be trusting?”

Here’s an example, from the cyberpunk classic Neuromancer by William Gibson, of a character grappling with just this question:

“Wintermute killed Armitage. Blew him out in a lifeboat with a hatch open.”

“Tough shit,” the Flatline said. “Weren’t exactly asshole buddies, were you?”

“He knew how to unbond the toxin sacs.”

“So Wintermute knows too. Count on it.”

“I don’t exactly trust Wintermute to give it to me.”

The construct’s hideous approximation of laughter scraped Case’s nerves like a dull blade. “Maybe that means you’re gettin’ smart.”

Eventually, we have to be proven trustworthy. Back to my own trust issues and fear of flying, I embarked, starting with Flying Without Fear, on a program of self-education. This is how I cope with stuff, your mileage may differ. I study up. Though I won’t dare say I actually could fly a plane I know a lot more about the commercial air system than the average layman, and at least in this one case, the statistics really don’t support my lack of trust.

Or as that Stanford article said:

. . . we could purposefully try to focus our attention on what makes other people trustworthy, and in doing so cultivate trust in them. Our goal could simply be self-improvement: that is, becoming more trusting, hopefully in a good way, so that we reap the benefits of justified trust. Alternatively, we might strive for the improvement of others: that is, making them more trustworthy.

By now I’m sure you’re thinking back to any number of books and stories you’ve read in which the question of who is trustworthy and how is that proven is a central plot point. While a lack of trustworthiness can define a villain, proven trustworthiness can define a hero, as in this passage from A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs:

“John Carter, if ever a real man walked the cold, dead bosom of Barsoom you are one. I know that I can trust you, and because the knowledge may someday help you or him or Dejah Thoris or myself, I am going to tell you the name of my father, nor place any restrictions or conditions upon your tongue. When the time comes, speak the truth if it seems best to you. I trust you because I know that you are not cursed with the terrible trait of absolute and unswerving truthfulness, that you could lie like one of your own Virginia gentlemen if a lie would save others from sorrow or suffering. My father’s name is Tars Tarkas.”

I read this book club edition in high school!

I read this book club edition in high school!

And whether or not that trustworthiness has been pre-established, the betrayal of trust makes for conflict, which makes for story. It goes to the heart of storytelling, in fact.

If everyone is perfectly trustworthy, and everyone trusts each other implicitly, then where is the story? Instead we’re getting a report on that one time everything went perfectly right—and the fact is, we like stories for just the opposite reason. Fiction lets us explore those times when everything (or seemingly everything) goes terribly wrong, and our hero has to work his or her way out of it.

In The People of the Black Circle, Robert E. Howard’s femme fatale seduces the would-be villain into a story-changing act of betrayal, with a classic pulp sensibility:

“I love you!” she cried fiercely, writhing her body against his, almost strangling him in her wild embrace, shaking him in her abandon. “I will make a king of you! For love of you I betrayed my mistress; for love of me betray your masters! Why fear the Black Seers? By your love for me you have broken one of their laws already! Break the rest! You are as strong as they!”

A man of ice could not have withstood the searing heat of her passion and fury. With an inarticulate cry he crushed her to him, bending her backward and showering gasping kisses on her eyes, face and lips.

“I’ll do it!” His voice was thick with laboring emotions. He staggered like a drunken man. “The arts they have taught me shall work for me, not for my masters. We shall be rulers of the world—of the world—”

Sounds like a story is brewing . . .


—Philip Athans

Part 8: Joy




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.
This entry was posted in Books, characters, horror novels, how to write fantasy, how to write fiction, how to write horror, how to write science fiction, indie publishing, Publishing Business, Pulp Fiction, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, SF and Fantasy Authors, transmedia, Writing, writing advice, writing fantasy, writing horror, writing science fiction, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


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