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Selecting the Character's Emotion


The last article covered the process used in selecting and portraying the character's objective. Many of the same principles also apply to the selection of the emotions. As with the objective, the ability to choose and convey strong emotions is a valuable tool for the actor. Many performances work mainly because of the powerful emotional portrayals.

In a dramatic sense, what are emotions and how do they affect the audience? Emotions, together with intentions and obstacles, are the forces that move the characters through the story. They are feelings so powerful that they can change the character's life or destroy it. And by destroy, I mean decimate one's inner powers, beliefs, even one's life. For the actor, such feelings must be larger than life. They must also be readable to stir and lead the audience in the desired story direction.

Emotions affect the audience in many ways. Most important is the empathy they create causing the audience to care about certain characters and follow their struggles. They likewise, create a for or against polarity for each main character as the audience observes, evaluates, judges, and even takes sides. As part of the behavior, emotions create deeper awareness of the character, often justifying their actions. In addition, emotions can change the audience perspective and the way they feel or think about a given issue. They are instrumental in leading the audience in the desired story direction

Like the intention, the emotion can intensify the conflict within or between characters. It can likewise, establish sympathetic or antagonistic roles, ones that make the audience root for the hero and boo the villain.

In choosing the emotion, the guidelines are similar to those used in selecting the objective. First read and study the entire play. Look for clues in the dialogue, the action, the stage directions, and in the resolution of the story. Select choices that result in the story line making sense.

Like the intent of the character, the emotion is derived from the character's viewpoint, what the character knows and feels up to that point in the story.

No one lives in a realistic world. We occupy a space of our own creation – bits and pieces of actuality mixed together with our internal perceptions, our hopes, our fears, our memories, and our anticipations. This "reality" we live in – half fact, half fantasy – is as much the product of our emotions as our rationality. Thus, in any given situation, what might be an acceptable intention and emotion for one character might be a contradiction for another character. Knowing the character's goals, flaws, and inclinations in context of the total story will aid in determining these choices.

Next, we need to answer the question, does the character's emotion assist the intention or does the emotion create an obstacle? Placing the objective, what the character wants, in conflict with what he or she feels will likely shift the focus of the scene to the character with the greater internal struggle.

Let's use the example where a man is at a dance and sees the women of his dreams sitting alone. His intention might be: To get to know her. But his emotion, fear of being rejected, would be in conflict with his intention. Thus the focus of the scene would be primarily on his internal struggle and the purpose of the scene might be to show the man overcoming his fear.

But let's say her intention, to marry rich, is assisted by the emotion, ambition. And the scene resolves when the women walks away when she discovers the man is dirt poor. If his initial emotion of fear were replaced by desire and his intention remained to get to know her then the focus of the scene would center more on the relationship and the impending discovery. The purpose of the scene could be to introduce his major obstacle in the story, the women, along with his over all goal: To win her love.

The initial choices for each character might look like this:


Objective: To get to know her

Emotion: Fear / Desire


Objective: To marry rich

Emotion: Ambition

The above choices set up confrontations, the inner doubts of the man, and then, his desire for her is countered by the revelation that he's not rich enough for her. After the woman learns this, her emotion changes to contempt for the man and she walks away. The characters' choices would now change to:


Objective: To win her love

Emotion: Determination


Objective: To marry rich

Emotion: Contempt (for the man)

These choices place the focus of the scene on the major conflict that is resolved later in the story when he wins her love. It, likewise, centers on what's important, the relationship.

As with the intention of the characters, the emotion need not follow the logic of the dialogue and action. Modern plays and movies do not always express the thoughts and emotions of the characters clearly, nakedly, up front. Today, we have to play the duality of people; playing what they appear to want against what they really want. And sometimes the two may have no connection what so ever.

In modern plays, every character has two behaviors. What is really going on and what they are willing to show to the world? So many emotions, to be played properly, need to be partially masked or repressed.

Using the man and woman from our earlier example, let's set up a scene later in the story, one that demonstrates the duality of the characters and uses of partially masked or repressed emotions. At a shopping mall, they meet by chance and their dialogue is mainly small talk. The scene ends with each alluding to errands undone. The only hint about what is really going on is found in the following script action lines:

He rarely looks directly at her.

They shake hands, each holding on longer than necessary, and then each goes their way.

In view of the story's final outcome, this is likely a scene where her objective, to marry rich, is weakening, and that she has some attraction for the man. Based on how their first meeting resolved, their selections might be as follows:


Objective: To not upset her / To win her love

Emotion: Desire / Determination


Objective: To show him I don't care / To make him want me

Emotion: Determination / Curiosity

This would be a scene where the characters are not open with each other, yet the audience (or camera) is aware of the inner conflicts and what's really happening. The behavior could best be reflected through masked and / or repressed emotions.

If the man were to play his emotion of desire openly, he would surely upset her. So he has to repress it or use a mask technique and unleash his desire when she is not looking at him. The woman is determined to show the man she doesn't care about him, but now he appears to have no desire for her. From her point of view, something has come to change the relationship and as a result, she alters both her objective and emotion.

His apparent disinterest makes her curious and her objective in now: To make him want me, like all men do. Her actions might be to get his attention, to entice him. But the problem is, he's not looking at her. How can she obtain what she wants? She uses the lingering handshake.

You can see where these choices create conflict both within and between the characters. They also create subtle shifts in behavior that move the story forward. Interest in the relationship is likewise increased because the audience is aware of something the characters are not. And as the scene ends, the audience has a pressing question: "What will happen the next time they meet?"

The foregoing example demonstrates one answer to the character's choices. These are, by no means, the best or only selections. In fact, the type of actor you are is also a consideration. If you were Jack Nicholson, your emotions might be different than if Arnold Schwarzenegger were he playing the same role. Each actor brings to the scene his or her own perspective and emotional latitudes. Furthermore, a scene played as a comedy versus one being played as a drama might result in different sets of emotions for the characters.

Here are some other factors that should be considered: Who are you in the story? What is the situation, and what is the relationship? For instance, if you were playing a love scene as a character that had little experience with the opposite sex, your emotion might be fear (fear of the unknown) rather than the expected desire or lust.

Now change the situation to your having a good dinner with your loving spouse. Your emotion would change to maybe contentment or joy. Now change the relationship to your having dinner with an important client. Your emotion might range from apprehension to ambition to greed. Who you are, the relationships, and the situation, all have a bearing on the emotion selected.

How many emotions can you use in a scene and how long do you play an emotion? As a general rule, work with only one dominant emotion in a scene – until something occurs to change it. These occurrences could be a change in the relationship, the situation, who you are, new information, overcoming obstacles, new obstacles, and succeeding or failing at one's intention. Any one of these events could have enough impact to motivate a change.

Most scenes have one dominant emotion running through them and while the actor may use subtle shadings of other emotions, that one feeling prevails – until something occurs to change it. If the actor were to change the emotion at each minor occurrence, the audience would question the character's integrity and loyalty to the cause for which he is fighting.

Too many changes cause the character to lose part of his identity. We become uncertain about who he is, what he's attempted in the past, or what he's after now. Credible characters are made up of consistent behavioral patterns. By that I mean, what has happened before will likely happen again should the same situation occur. There will, of course, be a few surprises, but for the most part, certain emotions will dominate each character's behavior as he or she progresses through the story.

So when you research and study the entire play, you will likely find certain emotions and emotional patterns repeated to reinforce the identity and commitment of the character. For instance, the repeated pattern of mischief – embarrassment – fear might be the dominant emotions for a small overly rambunctious boy. A young executive struggling with business ethics might have an emotion pattern of ambition – determination – greed – guilt. A woman in jeopardy might follow a curiosity-suspicion – fear – terror progression.

As you can see, certain emotions and their progressions make up a portion of the character. Also look for surprises where the emotion swings 180 degrees, ie, contentment to fear, desire to contempt, revenge to compassion.

When working on a play or scene, write down in the margin of the script your choices in objectives and emotions, where the changes occur, and the motivation for making the change. Beginning actors tend to be non-committal while experienced actors, however, take dramatic risks and commit themselves to their choices. By writing them down, you've made a major step to that commitment.

To aid in selecting the emotion, I've compiled discussions of root emotions , the primary forces in most scenes. These discussions explore the physical sensations, sources, forms, and dynamics of the most common root emotions. They will serve as a guide in stretching the clarity, strength, and polarity of your emotional repertoire.

This article has covered the basic skills used in the selection of dramatic emotions. Use these skills as tools to nurture and release the character's true feelings, to foster the isolation and control of emotional behaviors, and to achieve the desired strength (story importance), clarity (audience knowing / feeling it) and polarity (protagonist-antagonist orientations ).

Implementation of your selections is addressed in another article. This article will cover the various methods used to generate credible emotions.


Source by Erik Sean McGiven

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