What does joy look like? Gratitude? Compassion?
How about resentment? Victimhood? Jealousy? How many flavors of anger are there (jealous anger, envy, rage, resentful anger, etc.)?
If these emotions were colors they’d be on different quadrants of the color wheel. An emotion wheel uses a similar graphical representation—what we can think of as the novelist’s palate.
Compassion, altruism and courage are wonderful emotions when a hero is called upon to step up, while hatred, resentment or greed define antagonists.
I think it’s fascinating for young readers and writers to create an emotion wheel as they study characters. When reading a story, have them list the emotions each character experiences and place them on a round diagram with radiating sections—the character’s emotion wheel. Similar emotions go side by side, different ones farther apart.
What emotions are expressed by and motivate the main characters? It depends very much on the character and story, as well the writer. But there’s always an emotional architecture beneath the surface of the plot that explains each character’s actions and reactions or lack thereof.
We teach students about rounded characters, who are developed by the author in depth. They also literally are rounder in that their emotion wheels are more filled out, while one dimensional characters prove to have narrow pie-shaped emotion wheels.
Another cool thing to observe is how a main character’s emotion wheels are different in each stage of the plot arc—and show their development over the course of the story.
Emotion wheels can be used to understand the conflict between pro and antagonists too—which, incidentally, is borrowing a technique used by some family therapists to help people understand and talk about their real world conflicts. If reading is an escape, it’s an escape into knowledge and life.
A subtlety is to explore the strength of emotions—and whether their strength is appropriate. Do some characters repress their feelings and fail to respond appropriately to injuries or insults? Do others overreact with unduly strong emotions that hint at emotional baggage in their backstories? Students can define the center of the emotion wheel as neutral and show stronger feelings on the outer rim.
A wonderful thing emotion wheels do is engage the eye and hand in making diagrams—tactile and visual modes to compliment the reading / decoding. Add a creative role play like acting out an emotional mini-scene in the role of a character, and you’ve got your students engaging in many ways.
Maybe the best takeaway from emotion wheel diagramming is the insight that all emotions have their place in stories, and are integral to what makes the characters (and us) human. Whether anger (for example) is destructive or constructive depends on how the character responds to the feeling. It might be destructive—that’s the pattern we see with antagonistic or tragic characters. But anger might awaken the protagonist to an injustice and motivate them to confront it.
Similarly, emotions students might want to characterize as good may also be either constructive or destructive, depending on how the character handles them. Love has motivated many a protagonist to noble acts, and also sabotaged many a character and led to poor behavior—obsessiveness, possessiveness, and more.
So the emotion wheel of a character opens up a wonderful discussion: How do they respond to their feelings? Do they handle emotions well or poorly? Constructively or destructively? Immaturely or maturely?
And the answer to that line of questioning explains the motivation of the character—what makes them behave the way they do in the story.
Also, the protagonist’s development in the story turns out to be a process of emotional development as they react to their challenges and learn how to think about and act on their feelings more constructively. The protagonists are on essential journeys that mirror the healthy growth and development we wish for our students in the real world too!
FREE HANDOUT. I've posted a PDF of my emotion wheel up in the Teacher’s Lounge at WebsterPress.com as a student activity handout because it often helps jump start this activity to have a sample wheel for students to use.
Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure, available on Amazon.com, or free to teachers at www.websterpress.com. He has taught at UMass Amherst and North Start Center for Teens, and since moving to Vermont, The Grammar School and Compass School. His ELA curriculum materials are available in the Teacher’s Lounge of the Webster Press website.