Introduce Character Emotions by Degrees for a Realistic, Engaging Reader Experience

emotional man on couch

Emotional Tension Connects With Readers

Just as you increase the stakes in your story, you build reader connection with degrees of character emotion. So, you want the emotions toward the end of your mystery, to be stronger than those at the beginning. The degree of emotion reflects the importance of the stakes.

Knowing the different stages of universal emotions will help you build emotional intensity as your story progresses.

While a guide like The Emotion Thesaurus helps you translate emotions into physical appearance for your story, knowing where your character is on the emotion spectrum guides you toward raising emotional stakes.

Emotion Spectrum for Your Characters

The Dali Lama in his work on contentment commissioned a study called the Atlas of Emotions, identifying five universal human emotions—disgust, anger, fear, sadness, and enjoyment.

The Atlas, constructed by Drs. Paul and Eve Ekman, represents a spectrum of the five emotions from the initial triggered response to the emotion at its most intense. 

They explain:

Our emotions unfold on a timeline. The timeline begins with a trigger that initiates an emotional experience and ultimately results in a response.

When an emotion is triggered we are in the grip of that emotion, which limits our ability to think clearly and choose how we respond.

The Five Universal Emotions in Degrees

Each emotion has stages of increasing intensity, just like the stages of stakes in your story. You can use these stages to help you define where your character is in the emotional spectrum as you write a scene.

Here are the five universal emotions and their increasing emotional intensity. 


  1. Dislike 
  2. Aversion 
  3. Distaste
  4.  Repugnance
  5. Revulsion 
  6. Abhorrence
  7. Loathing


  1. Annoyance 
  2. Frustration 
  3. Exasperation 
  4. Argumentativeness 
  5. Bitterness 
  6. Vengefulness
  7. Fury


  1. Trepidation
  2. Nervousness 
  3. Anxiety 
  4. Dread 
  5. Desperation 
  6. Panic
  7. Horror 
  8. Terror


  1. Disappointment 
  2. Discouragement 
  3. Distraughtness 
  4. Resignation 
  5. Helplessness 
  6. Hopelessness 
  7. Misery 
  8. Despair
  9. Grief
  10. Sorrow
  11. Anguish


  1. Sensory Pleasure 
  2. Rejoicing 
  3. Compassion/Joy 
  4. Amusement 
  5. Schadenfreude (pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune)
  6. Relief 
  7. Peace
  8. Fiero (proud, fierce)
  9. Pride 
  10. Naches (pride or gratification)
  11. Wonder 
  12. Excitement
  13. Ecstasy 

How to Use Emotional Progression in Your Story

One of the drawbacks to a resource like The Emotion Thesaurus is you don’t know where you are on the spectrum with the emotions. 

Knowing the stages of emotional intensity can help you isolate the way you want to use physical expressions of the emotion. You’ll be able to identify where your character is on the emotional scale and apply appropriate physical responses.

For each character in your story, you can identify the emotion in a scene and connect your reader emotionally with what happens in your scene. And, knowing the stages of intensity will help you apply emotional responses and displays that illustrate the character’s stage in the emotion and the degree of intensity. 

You will also be able to control the emotional intensity of your story, bringing increasing emotional intensity as the story progresses. 

The degree of different states is a guideline. Every person is different, and that’s great for you as a writer. Each of your characters may respond along the emotional spectrum in a different way. 

Knowing emotions run through degrees of intensity will help you escalate the strength of the emotion in your story. 

Download your copy of The Five Universal Emotions

N.B. As of the publication of this article, the Atlas of Emotions website had some interactive issues. When I first researched this topic, everything worked well. I am sure the website will be functional once again soon. 

To get your mystery right from start to finish enroll in Write A Killer Mystery. Start on the right path to finish your mystery. 

Photo by Nik Shuliahin 💛💙 on Unsplash

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