Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Emotional Intelligence in writing

One thing I think I can do fairly well is write emotionally complicated characters. When I'm critiquing other people's writing, I also focus primarily on the characters emotional/psychological arc and whether or not it's effectively coming across to the reader.

Only recently have I been given a term which (probably) describes why this is so, and I've been thinking about it a lot in context of myself, and my writing.

A few months back, I posted a link to Unicorn Bell when they had a call for submissions about gifts. Here's the link to mine.

While in Ottawa for the Porcelain Artists of Canada convention, I reconnected with a friend of my grandmother who had recently retired from a long career as a nurse. She not only worked in many hospitals in the Greater Vancouver area, she taught nursing at a local college and was very involved in many other aspects of the profession, including childhood development.

Somehow over dinner one night, the topic of early childhood memories came up and, since the Unicorn Bell submission was reasonably fresh in my mind, I related it, 'cause I think it's a funny memory.

Apparently, age 3 is an abnormally early age to consider the feelings of others, especially to put the feelings of another person before your own and intentionally lie to make the other person feel better.

She told me that I must have an unusually high emotional intelligence and, being a retired teacher, told me to educate myself. Ha Ha.

So I did.

Here's a good relatively in-depth article about it, but there are 5 Characteristics that I pulled from here I wanted to talk about.

Characteristics of Emotional Intelligence
Daniel Goleman, an American psychologist, developed a framework of five elements that define emotional intelligence:
  1. Self-Awareness – People with high emotional intelligence are usually very self-aware. They understand their emotions, and because of this, they don't let their feelings rule them. They're confident – because they trust their intuition and don't let their emotions get out of control.

    They're also willing to take an honest look at themselves. They know their strengths and weaknesses, and they work on these areas so they can perform better. Many people believe that this self-awareness is the most important part of emotional intelligence.
  2. Self-Regulation – This is the ability to control emotions and impulses. People who self-regulate typically don't allow themselves to become too angry or jealous, and they don't make impulsive, careless decisions. They think before they act. Characteristics of self-regulation are thoughtfulness, comfort with change, integrity, and the ability to say no.
  3. Motivation – People with a high degree of emotional intelligence are usually motivated. They're willing to defer immediate results for long-term success. They're highly productive, love a challenge, and are very effective in whatever they do.
  4. Empathy – This is perhaps the second-most important element of emotional intelligence. Empathy is the ability to identify with and understand the wants, needs, and viewpoints of those around you. People with empathy are good at recognizing the feelings of others, even when those feelings may not be obvious. As a result, empathetic people are usually excellent at managing relationships, listening, and relating to others. They avoid stereotyping and judging too quickly, and they live their lives in a very open, honest way.
  5. Social Skills – It's usually easy to talk to and like people with good social skills, another sign of high emotional intelligence. Those with strong social skills are typically team players. Rather than focus on their own success first, they help others develop and shine. They can manage disputes, are excellent communicators, and are masters at building and maintaining relationships.

Yes, I found this interesting as a deeper look into my own ingrained behaviour (like standing further away from short people so visual cues are easier to give/receive), but immediately I found this to be a useful list to think about while writing, but also, while reading/critiquing.

One of the things that especially bothers me in the YA genre is the 'cheerleader-best-friend' character type. As in, the one that only shows up whenever the MC is feeling upset and/or needs advice, yet other than those times, pretty much never appears in the story at all and often has little-to-no problems of their own, because that might distract from the MC's problems/arc.

Whenever I come across one of these, either in a draft I'm critiquing, or in a published work (yup, they show up a lot, even there), it has always really bothered me, enough that I won't buy an author's next book.

The reason? It deeply disturbs me when one character is so self-involved that they completely neglect/abuse the people around them.

It's why I can't watch 'Family Guy' because Peter Griffin is that type, yet his friends/family treat it like it's perfectly acceptable, therefore enabling his selfishness.

I think, to write more realistic, complex characters, it's important to keep in mind their level of emotional intelligence. It's the core of who they are, how they make decisions, what they expect from other people, and how they interact with those around them.

Are they self-aware or self-absorbed? That will affect all their relationships, but also the level of growth that character will go through. A super self-absorbed character won't suddenly sacrifice themselves to save the world. Major leaps in growth will come across as unbelievable, or worse, simply shovelled in because the plot needs to move forward. Knowing their level of self-awareness is key to keeping characters consistent/on-model.

How well can they control their emotions/impulses? This is something that comes up in YA quite frequently, on a number of different levels, and ties in quite nicely to motivation.

Empathy is very characteristic of that 'cheerleader-best-friend' character type, but rarely defines the MC, unless it's over-done in a Mary-Sue kind of way (and, for anyone familiar with Japanese animation/comic stereotypes, that's the main reason I don't read/watch most of the mainstream stuff.) People will also naturally empathize with those closest to them, and rarely with those they consider enemies, which is great fodder for assumptions/misunderstandings, but also when making choices that will affect the people around them.

What is the character like socially? In YA, the MC usually hangs out on the fringes and the antagonists are often the popular kids. I'm not saying this is bad thing, but it's often a stereotype that can quickly slide into lazy writing, like the mousy-girl-gets-a-makeover-and-attracts-the-hot-guy trope. Personally, I find interactions within the same social group to be far more interesting, and it's one of the things I wanted to explore in 'Brake Fluid'.

By the way, Veronica Roth had an interesting post which prompted me to write about this subject in the first place. Her description of the Erudite's good points reminded me of the EI characteristics and made me think about what things I try to work out through my writing...and then I felt a little embarrassed how often I focus on trust/loyalty as a theme.

Just like getting frustrated with imaginary characters like Peter Griffin and self-absorbed YA MC's who take their friends for granted, in real life I get easily frustrated by the same kinds of people, who seem to think there's a sliding scale of importance and that they have a right to sit up top.

How about you guys? Is emotional intelligence a new concept to you, and how much thought do you put into your characters EI levels, not only the MC's, but the secondary ones as well? Can you think of any books/characters that were either done really well, or really badly?

How about in real life? How closely do you empathize with the people around you? Immediate family? Close friends? Work acquaintances? Strangers on the street? People you've never met from a different social/economic circle? Someone from another country across the globe? How does this affect the choices you make on a daily basis? As a small example, do you buy 'Fair Trade' products even though they're more expensive?

Do you think your own level of EI impacts your ability to write characters?

Also, what things do you work out in your own writing? Are there certain themes you often revisit?

...and sorry this is so nerdy, but it has been a while since I went over-analytical all over a blog post.


  1. okay this is the kind of discussion for the bar. I've told you before and I'll tell you again, your brain intrigues me and feeds me. You make me think, not that many people do.

    by the way as a child while I prob did have emotional intelligence I was too honest so if a gift did not please me, I said so. I've learned since, yes.

    Excellent I will need those skills for chapter one

    carry on amazing me

    1. Definitely the kind of subject that comes up after a few too many glasses of red wine ;)

  2. Huh. I've never really tried to directly put EI stuff into books on a conscious level in most things, though it definitely exists in the one Exorcism novel/series-to-be, mostly because the MC has, frankly, little, though he will slowly get more as the series progresses and he becomes, well, sane. It is probably the only time I've deliberately considered it prior to writing, come to think of it.

    1. Heh, I don't mean to put it in intentionally, but it's a different kind of list to check characters for consistency.

      Hmmm... becoming saner as the story progresses, that should be very interesting :D

  3. I can't say I've really thought of this before. This is a new-to-me term. The five facets are rather interesting. I can recall making various decisions based upon my sole need to be helpful or in empathy to someone's situation. I wonder if EI is something that increases with the introduction of children into one's life, because I've certainly had to change in various ways to integrate my daughter's needs, wants and desires into my scope.

    1. I think people all have these skills, but probably some are more ingrained than others. For example, I know I have way too much empathy, and far too little social skills.

      Certainly, as our lives change, new relationships are introduced and other ones fall away, our EI levels will continually re-balance.

      Having your daughter is a prime example :)

  4. What an awesome post! Yep, EI figures deep within most memorable characters, for sure. But now that I think of it, wouldn't any writer worth his salt have high EI? In order to be able to not just create these memorable characters (high in EI themselves) but also to be able to head-hop, so to speak, in between characters and their particular traits, their particular viewpoints, wants, needs, challenges, perceptions? One needs a tremendous amount of empathy for that. Sure, a good imagination helps, but when delving deep into a character, that "imagining" of feelings and reactions isn't really imagination but empathy, isn't it? GREAT post, Ms. Monkey!

    1. Way to hit the nail on the head ;)

      Yes, that is precisely what I was getting at... writers probably need to have a high EI in order to write three dimensional *real* characters, because first we have to understand them, even if we don't agree with their in-story-choices.


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