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  • Writer's picturePhil Parker

Emotional Intelligence and the Writer

How do people write successfully? Creativity plays a large part but let's not overlook the importance of characterisation, for a story to succeed its characters need to be equally as effective. Good stories require characters in which we believe. We need to relate to them in some way, understand why they behave as they do. We must react to them in emotional ways too, just as we do with people we encounter every day. The question is - how does a writer achieve these things?

The answer lies in their emotional intelligence.

Let's define it first of all. The American psychologist and science journalist Daniel Goleman, defined Emotional Intelligence (EQ) in his 1995 book of the same name. Since then the concept has been adopted in education, business and commerce especially where its qualities have a profound impact. In simple terms, emotional intelligence is the capacity for a person to understand, manage and express their emotions while handling and influencing the emotional reactions of others.

How is that connected to being a writer? To answer that question, let me refer you to one of the most famous lines in American literature. In To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Atticus Finch tells his frustrated daughter, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." To do such a thing requires empathy. An open-mindedness to consider the experiences of another person. That's what we do as writers, isn't it?

Empathy is only part of the emotional intelligence profile but a crucial one. It enables the author to 'step into the skin' of her/his characters to write from their perspectives. That's not easy. Especially when some of them will be unpleasant, possessed of attitudes and priorities which are very different to the author. Narrating events from the perspective of a murderer, a tyrant or even an alien, requires a combination of creativity and empathy if that person is to be real to the reader, real enough to provoke reaction.

It's generally accepted there are five parts to the emotional intelligence profile. Empathy is one but what about the others?

Self-awareness is a big part of the successful author's mindset. You have to know your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Beyond that, you discover the attitudes you can imbue into your characters - and those you struggle with. I've always maintained the biggest difficulty in writing speculative fiction is creating worlds and people that are different to the reader's experiences. They are also different to the writer's. The challenge begins by accepting this fact and not avoiding it but confronting it, embracing that challenge even! OK, so your character is a time traveller. You're not. What might it be like? Of course you can read HG Wells if you like but I'd suggest considering how YOU would react if someone presented you with the technology. Would you use it or run away? To what historical period would you travel? Why? What would you take with you? Would you go on your own? What rules would you establish for yourself?

The writer's self-awareness is like that of an actor's. I've told my students in the past that it is like building scaffolding around yourself, to extend your qualities outwards to see what they'd become. Build on your sense of principle to see if it would ever lead to doing something unethical. Identify your level of bravery and see how far you'd go to protect another person. That's what I mean by scaffolding your identity but for that to happen you need heightened self-awareness first of all.

Self-regulation involves 'expressing your emotions appropriately'. The emphasis is on the adverb here. Some authors fail to appreciate the importance of self-regulation, an awareness of the impact their writing can have on others. It's a challenge when an author writes from a perspective other than their own. You only have to look at the stories in the media of writers who upset sections of the population with their lack of empathy and self-awareness. When applied to race. religion, sexual orientation - as examples - the appropriate need is to check your accuracy, to carry out detailed research - as a starting point. The danger is to assume. To go back to Atticus Finch's phrase - you can't just climb into their skin, the walking around part is where you need to go beyond assuming, you need to find out and react with empathy, with respect. Goleman also suggests that those with strong self-regulation skills are high in conscientiousness. They are thoughtful about how they influence others, and they take responsibility for their own actions

Social skills are an obvious part of emotional intelligence. Characters in a story have varied relationships with other people. Defining those relationships, understanding how they change, how circumstances will influence them and appreciating the different depths of those connections comes from understanding the diversity of these skills. It is a question of navigation. A writer will understand where to take a character when they want something specific to happen. In a marriage which goes sour, the writer takes the couple to rocks onto which their relationship will founder but on the way there they may introduce another character who offers temptation or distraction or a voice of reason.

The writer is often a people watcher. I know I am. My first drama tutor at university set us a challenge of going onto the High Street to return with a story based on one person we'd watched for a few minutes. We had to analyse their behaviour, their body language with others, even how they spoke. It's an exercise I still use now and I recommend it if you don't already do it. How characters interact with each other ensures their validity and credibility, if these things don't exist, readers don't engage. You have to understand these interactions and be able to recall the right type to suit the situation. Without this level of analysis, characters will be shallow, unreal and... dull!


In this context I'm referring to intrinsic motivation - behavior that is driven by internal rewards, it arises from within the individual because it is naturally satisfying. The writer's use of motivation is frequently not driven by external forces such as fame, money, recognition, and acclaim! We know we're never going to achieve such things. However, the writer also needs to appreciate how their characters are the same. Earlier, I mentioned HG Wells' Time Machine. The protagonist's intrinsic motivation might be labelled as curiosity as it drives him to discover what will become of the human race in the future (noting the character doesn't go back into history!). In Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451, his protagonist, Guy Montag, is also driven by curiosity to discover the reasoning behind book burning and the mysterious disappearance of his free-thinking neighbour. The intrinsic motivations of characters - not just the protagonist - are another factor which establishes their validity and credibility, we see ourselves in them for this reason. The emotionally intelligent writer will also need to relate to the intrinsic motivations of characters who pose a disturbing, even malign, purpose in the story.

The element of motivation is a difficult one to handle. In the old adage of 'Show, Don't Tell', the author cannot state what these inner motivations are. The reader needs to identify them and be given clues for that reason. Making the clues accessible, clear and unambiguous is a challenge, one anyone with limited EQ would doubtlessly struggle to fulfil.

Having worked in education for many years, I've used the image below, in teacher training sessions, to help them understand the factors that influence their students' behaviour. It is equally as useful for the writer because it helps to focus the things I've been saying in this post. You only have to read some of the feedback reviewers give to some authors to realise that they don't always appreciate the importance of this depth of characterisation. So here it is: the Daniel Goleman Iceberg Theory.

You'll see that his theory works on the basis that much of a person's character, like an iceberg, is caused by what is below the surface. The qualities the writer must imply, never tell. The emotionally intelligent writer understands this, is reflective and analytical enough to be able to apply it in realistic ways that makes the character credible and capable of provoking emotional reactions from the readers.

If you've found this post helpful please reference it if you share it with other people. Thanks.

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