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 we end up with . . .


“I have drunken deep of joy,

And I will taste no other wine tonight.”

―Percy Bysshe Shelley


“Happiness” has become quite the fashionable buzzword in the past decade or so, but that was not always the case. Trish Hall opened her 1998 New York Times article “Seeking a Focus on Joy in the Field of Psychology” with the paragraph:

Psychologists rarely think much about what makes people happy. They focus on what makes them sad, on what makes them anxious. That is why psychology journals have published 45,000 articles in the last 30 years on depression, but only 400 on joy.

I can’t speak for the psychology journals but there’s a GoodReads list of “Best Happiness Books” in which 284 voters managed to rank a list of 172 books on the subject of happiness ranging from the Dalai Lama’s best selling The Art of Happiness to Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly: My Twelve Months Unearthing the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country. I wonder if she found any joy in being at the bottom of the list?

I have actually read this and it was very interesting.

I have actually read this and it was very interesting.

At least by 2014 there were whole web sites devoted only to this subject, including Ingrid Fetell Lee’s blog Aesthetics of Joy in which we find that we have “A Universal Right to Joy.” In that post is a terrific definition of “joy” and how it’s separate from the more transitory and external “happiness”:

We don’t have to think about it—we just feel it. We feel it in our bodies, warm and light, and we can see it in the bodies and on the faces of others. Darwin documented people and animals in states of joy, and found it easy to identify people experiencing joy by their bright eyes, smiles, and laughter, as well as their upright and open posture. Joy has a universal language, because the emotion itself is universal. We can come into a moment of joy by encountering something delightful, or we can conjure it in the mind, through memories or imagination. But we can’t fake it. And in fact research shows that we can all discern a fake smile, because the muscles that contract around our eyes in a real smile are not under our conscious control. Joy is visceral and automatic. We’re hardwired to feel it—it is a primal sense that tells us in a moment that life is good.

Of course authors of fiction have tapped into the eternal wellspring of pure joy, as we see in this clip from The Call of the Wild by Jack London:

He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars.

Shawn Actor and Michelle Gielan, in their post “The New Definition of Happiness,” build on the deeper meaning of joy as opposed to the more transitory experience of happiness:

Joy is something we can experience in the ups and downs of life, even when things are not pleasurable. A long run can be tiring and painful, but you can feel joy and happiness as you use the body you’ve been given to explore your potential. Childbirth is one of the most painful things humans can endure, but, as our baby doctor told us, there is a difference between pathological pain, like breaking your arm, and meaningful pain. There is a joy throughout pregnancy, childbirth and parenting that, while not always pleasurable, is linked to us achieving our potential as parents, lovers and contributors to this world.

Think about this dichotomy in your own characters. What makes them happy (that pizza sure does taste great) and what brings them joy (I understand my place in the universe . . . or something like that)?

By way of a literary example, I give you the complete text of the short story “Joy” by Anton Chekhov, written in 1883 and as translated by Constance Garnett for her 1921 collection The Schoolmaster and Other Stories:


It was twelve o’clock at night.

Mitya Kuldarov, with excited face and ruffled hair, flew into his parents’ flat, and hurriedly ran through all the rooms. His parents had already gone to bed. His sister was in bed, finishing the last page of a novel. His schoolboy brothers were asleep.

“Where have you come from?” cried his parents in amazement. “What is the matter with you?

“Oh, don’t ask! I never expected it; no, I never expected it! It’s . . . it’s positively incredible!”

Mitya laughed and sank into an armchair, so overcome by happiness that he could not stand on his legs.

“It’s incredible! You can’t imagine! Look!”

His sister jumped out of bed and, throwing a quilt round her, went in to her brother. The schoolboys woke up.

“What’s the matter? You don’t look like yourself!”

“It’s because I am so delighted, Mamma! Do you know, now all Russia knows of me! All Russia! Till now only you knew that there was a registration clerk called Dmitry Kuldarov, and now all Russia knows it! Mamma! Oh, Lord!”

Mitya jumped up, ran up and down all the rooms, and then sat down again.

“Why, what has happened? Tell us sensibly!”

“You live like wild beasts, you don’t read the newspapers and take no notice of what’s published, and there’s so much that is interesting in the papers. If anything happens it’s all known at once, nothing is hidden! How happy I am! Oh, Lord! You know it’s only celebrated people whose names are published in the papers, and now they have gone and published mine!”

“What do you mean? Where?”

The papa turned pale. The mamma glanced at the holy image and crossed herself. The schoolboys jumped out of bed and, just as they were, in short nightshirts, went up to their brother.

“Yes! My name has been published! Now all Russia knows of me! Keep the paper, mamma, in memory of it! We will read it sometimes! Look!”

Mitya pulled out of his pocket a copy of the paper, gave it to his father, and pointed with his finger to a passage marked with blue pencil.

“Read it!”

The father put on his spectacles.

“Do read it!”

The mamma glanced at the holy image and crossed herself. The papa cleared his throat and began to read: “At eleven o’clock on the evening of the 29th of December, a registration clerk of the name of Dmitry Kuldarov . . .”

“You see, you see! Go on!”

“. . . a registration clerk of the name of Dmitry Kuldarov, coming from the beershop in Kozihin’s buildings in Little Bronnaia in an intoxicated condition . . .”

“That’s me and Semyon Petrovitch . . . It’s all described exactly! Go on! Listen!”

“. . . intoxicated condition, slipped and fell under a horse belonging to a sledge-driver, a peasant of the village of Durikino in the Yuhnovsky district, called Ivan Drotov. The frightened horse, stepping over Kuldarov and drawing the sledge over him, together with a Moscow merchant of the second guild called Stepan Lukov, who was in it, dashed along the street and was caught by some house-porters. Kuldarov, at first in an unconscious condition, was taken to the police station and there examined by the doctor. The blow he had received on the back of his head . . .”

“It was from the shaft, papa. Go on! Read the rest!”

“. . . he had received on the back of his head turned out not to be serious. The incident was duly reported. Medical aid was given to the injured man . . .”

“They told me to foment the back of my head with cold water. You have read it now? Ah! So you see. Now it’s all over Russia! Give it here!”

Mitya seized the paper, folded it up and put it into his pocket.

“I’ll run round to the Makarovs and show it to them . . . I must show it to the Ivanitskys too, Natasya Ivanovna, and Anisim Vassilyitch . . . I’ll run! Good-bye!”

Mitya put on his cap with its cockade and, joyful and triumphant, ran into the street.


Thank you, Mr. Chekhov, for not just capturing the human quality of joy, but for anticipating, by some 124 years, Keeping Up With the Kardashians.


—Philip Athans

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, Publishing Business, 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.


  1. Pingback: NAVIGATING THE EIGHT EMOTIONS, PART 7: TRUST | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  2. Something we all need a little more of. Somedays it’s hard to hold on to, others, it’s like a bright ray of sunshine.

  3. Pingback: Writing Links…4/18/16 – Where Worlds Collide

  4. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…4/19/16 – Where Worlds Collide

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s