What follows is the fourth part of a list of what I feel are the common emotional tones, with examples. (For part 1 please click this link.)
(Note: Many examples may represent spoilers if you have not read/seen the story, though I will do my best to refrain from being too specific.)
This section focuses on what I call Neutral Neutral emotional moments (emotions that could be positive or negative, and could lead to action or inaction, depending on the situation):
“I can’t wait/let’s get started.”
This is the unique blend of charisma, ambition, and hope that launches characters and audiences into the thick of a conflict. There’s no plan as such, just enthusiasm, and a confidence that’s rarely justified, but often intoxicating.
These are the moments that often stand out, the calm before the plunge that captures the audience’s imagination with half-formed possibilities. It’s a moment of vague promises, but somehow the story earns the audience’s trust almost immediately.
It’s a delicate balance, hinting at the protagonist’s skill and resolve, while also keeping their opening remarks/actions humble enough to only hint, rather than outright show.
Of course then the story has to deliver on those promises, both the ones that have been made over the course of the entire story, and the ones that have been made in those opening moments that immediately precede the “big fight” or “big reveal,” though in many ways a big fight is its own big reveal. Audiences get to see how skilled/powerful the characters really are.
In Mistborn (book by Brandon Sanderson), there are numerous instances where one of the protagonists enjoys going out at night. They enjoy moving around at a time when most are afraid to step outside, and revel in the protection that night and mist offer, allowing them to more openly use their abilities. It’s an activity they repeatedly miss and complain about when circumstances prevent them from doing so.
In Mistborn (book by Brandon Sanderson), perhaps around the 2/3 or 3/4 point, one of the protagonists steps out to fight. Their motive is to help someone else, but as they step out, there’s an eagerness. They think back on all the wrongs they’ve suffered, and it’s clear this is their revenge. They fight without reservations, demonstrating all of their skills.
“Wait…what was that?”
Curiosity and confusion are one of the most relatable emotions a character can express, since the audience is almost always experiencing some level of curiosity throughout the story, and any confusion they do experience often needs to be resolved with all due haste, or (at the very least) someone needs to “hang a lantern on it.”
And in many (but not all cases) that’s what a character expressing curiosity or confusion does. It essentially tells the audience “this is weird/confusing (at least from this character’s perspective).” It helps audiences to feel validated in their confusion, and provides a natural prompt for another character to explain things (unless they don’t know either, which really says something).
Curiosity and confusion also serve as a form of characterization, most notably through the intensity of the character’s curiosity/confusion. What do they notice, and how intensely are they concerned with the question? For example, in the Fellowship of the Ring, members of the fellowship are often very concerned with the location and status of the ring, but aside from Aragorn and Gandalf (and occasionally Gimli or Boromir) the fellowship is rarely more than mildly curious about the path they are taking, which could be interpreted as faith in their leaders, indifference, or a general habit of being led by others.
In Name of the Wind, early in the story Kvothe encounters Abenthy, a wandering archanist, who demonstrates remarkable skills, which at the time seem like magic to Kvothe. Eventually the skills Abenthy teaches Kvothe become the foundation for one of his major obsessions, but when he first encounters Abenthy, Kvothe’s interest in him is not very intense. It’s only later, after tragedy strikes, that Kvothe becomes truly determined to become an archanist.
In Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, during one of the flashbacks, Voldemort approaches one of his teachers, asking about a rare form of dark magic, and it quickly becomes apparent how intensely focused Voldemort is on this goal. The subject becomes one of the cornerstones of his ultimate plan, the great secret he assumes no one else would ever uncover. His dream of surpassing all others in magic.
“I-I don’t…/I-I didn’t…”
Changing characters is a virtual constant of storytelling. It’s not always the protagonist, but in almost every story at least 1 major character experiences some change to their values and perspective. And any change in a character’s perspective will include a period of doubt or uncertainty. It’s the natural transition point between one belief and another.
Even if the character ultimately remains committed to their original beliefs and values, doubt can give that belief greater validity and value because the character demonstrates that it’s not simply blind faith but rather a willingness to question and consider alternatives that keeps their viewpoint strong.
In many ways the potency of any character’s struggles is rooted in the difficulty of the task, and few things challenge a character quite like doubt. Physical barriers, while challenging, have a certain simplicity to them. Either the character brings more force/energy to bear upon the challenge, or finds a different way of engaging the problem.
But doubt and uncertainty is a nebulous. One can’t simply “overpower it” with raw strength (though some do try). It’s ambiguous by nature, challenging the character to reexamine what they believe, and (in some cases) who they are.
Doubt, uncertainty, and skepticism often leads to hesitation, but in some cases, if they feel someone is about to “do” or “say” something irrevocable, they may intercede and attempt to stop them (as Boromir does in Fellowship of the Ring, when he doubts the plan to destroy the ring).
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone, when Harry is first told he’s a wizard, he doesn’t believe it, and yet he soon recognizes that there have been many strange experiences which hinted at some kind of magical “something” surrounding him.
In Fellowship of the Ring, near the end of the book, when the party stop at the Argonath (a great river), Aragorn feels torn. On the one hand, as a great warrior he feels obligated to head to Gondor and add his strength to the fight against Mordor.
On the other hand, he also feels a keen obligation to Frodo and the ring. The fellowship’s strength has waned, and he fears that Frodo may need his guidance and his might to safeguard the journey to Mount Doom.
This division, these two paths that the Fellowship must follow, proves to be one of the most detrimental conflicts of the fellowship, dividing every member of the party, but none more than Aragorn, their leader, and Frodo, who carries the heaviest duty, to bear the ring itself.
And it’s in this internal struggle that many among the Fellowship truly reveal who they are.
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