Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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February 16, 2024

Resources for Writing Great Emotional Conflict

by Jenny Hansen

Happy, sad and neutral emoticons on instant print transfer photographs hanging on a clothesline

The universe has been pushing me to think about emotions this month. First, it was the comments section of Sandy Vaile's post (One Amazing Perspective Shift to Make Scene Writing Easier). Then, I watched an ad with a marital counselor who claimed he could cure all marital conflicts by helping couples communicate using Hard or Soft emotions. I didn't believe him, but it sounded intriguing.

I'm a sucker for emotions. I love to read about them because they make me feel closer to the characters. And I love to write about them because I'm all about the emotional journey. I was a psychology major, then a teacher and coach, and now a writer. Emotions are a comfortable area for me.

But what about the people who haven't had to dig into the emotional minefield?

Maybe they don't know about hard and soft emotions, or even all the emotional states at their disposal for fiction. So, I searched out resources to get some lists and definitions for y'all. I'm not gonna lie -- I argued with several of those resources.

(I can't wait to see which ones YOU like down in the comments.)

How many emotions are there?

Most people would answer, "Thousands!" But according to scientists at Berkeley, there are twenty-seven categories of emotions, or emotional states. I've listed them below.

Aesthetic AppreciationFear
CravingSexual Desire
Empathic Pain
I completely disagreed with the results of this study.

Maybe it's the romance writer inside me. But the first thing that came to my mind when I read that Berkeley article was, "What about LOVE?" What about pride, disappointment, hate, guilt, shame, triumph, sympathy, disappointment? (You know, all the stuff we writers really dig in and use for our characters' emotional wounds.)

Where's all that stuff?

Twenty-seven emotional states. Pfffffft! Then I found a list from Hoffman Group that was a bit more realistic to me. They listed 200+ feelings, which feels much more believable.

What are Hard and Soft Emotions?

As I mentioned above, hard vs. soft emotions was a new concept for me. This view presents some emotions as polarizing, and others as keys to building intimacy and bringing people together. The easiest way for me to conceptualize it was to think of hard emotions as a finger pointing outward, and soft emotions as a finger pointing inward.

Soft Emotions

Examples of soft emotions are vulnerability, sadness, fear, doubt, uncertainty, danger, and disappointment. These are more easily expressed as "I feel" statements, and they keep the focus on self (finger pointing inward).

When expressed, these emotions might:

  • Lead to reassurance or closeness
  • Generate empathy from the listening partner
  • Repair hurt feelings
  • Enhance the strength of the attachment between two people

Hard Emotions

Examples of hard emotions could include anger, hostility, power or the need for control, and resentment. These are the outward-pointing emotions. When people hear a sentence that starts with "I'm so angry," they most often hear "with you" tacked onto the end. Whether it's stated or not, they hear it.

When expressed, these emotions might:

  • Imply blame
  • Assert dominance
  • Escalate conflict

The character conflict possibilities here are endless.

This takes me back to the Dirty Fighting posts where we talked about how to use your characters' emotional baggage to have a down-and-dirty fight between two people on the page.

Hard and soft emotions are indeed a great tool for moving your story along through dialogue. At the end of the day, the marital guy was correct - knowledge of hard and soft emotions can absolutely change the trajectory of a relationship...as long as both people (or characters) know how to access those emotions and express them well.

Other Resources for Character Emotion

One of my go-to resources is OneStop for Writers, the brainchild of Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. They are the authors of the nine-book Thesaurus series, which includes The Emotion Thesaurus. I love that all the thesaurus information is included with their OneStop subscription!

I also loved this emotion collection from TherapyIdeas. They included valuable resources like:

  • The purpose of the 19 most common emotions
  • A TED Talk on Handling Feelings and Emotions
  • Some fantastic books on Anger
  • A list of Polarities in Emotions (my fave for plotting)

Polarities in Emotion Examples

Excerpt: "Feelings travel together with their opposites. If you feel lopsided in an emotion and want more movement, ask yourself what is the other side, the polarity. The easiest duet to relate to is fear and excitement. Doing anything brand new always offers both emotions. You may have trained yourself to only pay attention to one side. It’s time to relearn that both are available."

A few other polarities: Anger/Hurt, Trust/Betrayal, Shame/Belonging

(Seriously, this article rocked. Here's the link again: therapyideas.net/emotions/)

Final Thoughts

Great stories have great characters. Readers relate to characters through emotions. A talented author hooks us into their character's emotional journey in a way that lets us empathize, learn, and see our own struggles through their character.

The better we are at putting believable emotions on the page, the more our readers will love our books. It's just that simple (and complex).

Do you have resources that you love for character emotions? Did any of the ones listed here resonate? Please share your favorites down in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Jenny

By day, Jenny Hansen provides brand storytelling, LinkedIn coaching, and copywriting for accountants and financial services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 20 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

Find Jenny here at Writers In the Storm, or online on Facebook or Instagram.

All article photos from Depositphotos.

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22 comments on “Resources for Writing Great Emotional Conflict”

  1. I love emotions, too. Maybe because I was a registered nurse and had some training in psychology. Maybe because I'm highly emotive. Definitely because when reading I want characters who feel things deeply with a lot of different emotions. That's what I want to write, too. I have the Emotion Thesaurus, but hadn't seen these other resources. Thank you for sharing them. I'm diving into them now!

    1. I love the nurses, Lynette! I grew up around them, because my mama moved between oncology and OB/GYN recovery.

      Emotion is what it's all about to me. Angela and Becca put our an emotional wound thesaurus a few years ago that you'd probably love. Or...all of it's at One Stop.

  2. My list, which is part of the detailed process of preparing to write each scene, comes from Jessica Page Morrell's book on writing, Between the Lines, with a few additions:
    The basic emotions (according to Morrell - from research):
    Anger -
    Distrust -
    Contempt -
    Happiness -
    Fear -
    Surprise -
    Greed -
    Love -
    Hate -
    Jealousy -
    Guilt -
    Sadness -
    Regret -

    I think about each of these, and usually find some way it might be invoked in the scene. With this list, I get reminded in the scene prep to at least consider how the pov character might be affected by each.

    In a later step, I also ask myself how the READER might be affected, and how to bring that out.

    Thus armed, the subconscious pulls up all kinds of good ideas when I'm writing.

  3. I love your angle on soft vesus hard emotions. It can help me get past a stuck part in the scene I'm working on.. . What happens next?

    Thanks, Jenny!

    1. You're welcome, Miffie. I hadn't heard of hard and soft emotions either, and it took some digging into. In the end, I didn't even find any resources devoted to only that topic...it was always an add-on to something else. So I asked a psychologist friend to explain it to me. 🙂

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