Game of Cults: Use This Emotion Wheel to Craft a Better Reader Experience

Is there a character in a book, TV show, or movie that you really hate?


Do you respect the author or actor for their work in making you feel that way?

Plutchik’s emotion wheel

Dr. Paul Eckman’s research suggests that there are five common feelings. These feelings are distinguishable across cultures just by the look on someone’s face.

These emotions are reactions triggered by the formula expectation = perception. They can be positive or negative, and they are:

Joy, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust.

I’m a fan of using Plutchik’s emotion wheel as a guide to describing various feelings. I have several on the wall by my desk to help me understand the spectrum and how adjacent emotions affect each other.


Plutchik's emotion wheel

Emotion wheels can be good tools to help you with your writing, especially if you are crafting an emotional journey across opposing emotions or exploring how some emotions can mix or intensify.

I share all of this so you can have a framework for using emotion to energize an individual reader and, later, a community.

We are looking to elicit emotion. To purposely trigger them to make your customer feel a certain way.

How do we do that?

Let’s go back to where I asked earlier about a character you really hate.

For you to hate a fictional character or feel fear in a story, you need to be invested.

While this seems obvious, most authors fail to get that investment. Characters feel wooden. The plot is a sequence of events, but no emotion is ever triggered.

During the reading experience, a stimulus event must cause the reader to have a cognitive appraisal about what they read that puts them in a risk or reward situation.

Suppose there is a stimulus, and your unconscious appraisal is that it is a threat or danger.

Your subjective reaction is fear, and your behavioral reaction is to flee. The function is to get your perception of safety to equate to your expectation of safety.

Let’s do this with anger.

When you perceive an obstacle, your unconscious appraisal is an attack on something you value (you). Your reaction is anger. The unconscious reaction is an attack to eliminate the obstacle.

How about joy?

If you gain value, your cognitive appraisal is that you now possess this value. Your emotion is joy. Your reaction is to retain or repeat gaining this resource.

These three examples show you there’s a constant unconscious process that assesses what you perceive against the expectations you have for yourself. It triggers automatically, and you react.

So, how can we use this idea to get people to care about your products? It all comes back to getting readers to attach their identity to your brand.

Get them to see your characters and story as part of their perception of the self and, therefore, worth having as part of the emotional equation.

Once a person perceives that a person, place, thing, or idea is part of them, they integrate it into their ego, becoming part of their self-map.

The interesting thing about our perception of self is we don’t stop to think about what makes up our unconscious self-image.

Right now, if you take a break from reading this article and quiet your mind, you can, for brief moments, separate yourself from feelings and thoughts.

You can be an observer.

Consciously observe that you are something separate from your thoughts, feelings, and the meat suit you operate in the world.

This isn’t an exercise in spirituality but just a way to have you see that from this rarely attained space of observer, we can see that we are not our thoughts, feelings, or bodies.

No, you didn’t sign up for a spirituality or mindfulness newsletter. This is Game of Cults, and our current guest teachers are Yellow Kid Weil and Amarillo Slim. We need to know this stuff to influence others.

I want to contrast the headspace you can experience in a moment of meditation or mindfulness versus an overactive brain looking to protect the self.

Stub your toe. You feel pain. That’s the brain protecting the meat suit.

Ever touch a hot surface? Before you can truly comprehend that your flesh is in danger of destruction, your brain triggers an automatic response. Hence, you flinch.

Ever get a scare from a garden hose because you thought it was a snake? You jump away before you even realize what you saw. That instinct is hardwired protection to save you from danger.

That brings me to the self and what we proxy for the self.

What you consider as you includes your thoughts, feelings, and the meat suit you operate in the physical world.

It also includes your family, friends, possessions, groups you associate with, the music you like, the products you buy, the town you live in—the list goes on.

You may not consciously think about it, but it’s true. All of these entities—external to you—are part of your internal identity because you associate with them.

You relate to them.

Now, let’s talk a little about your brain. This is the most energy-intensive organ in your body, and while it has evolved to do some amazing things, its primary directive is to keep you alive today and into the future.

Feelings are similar, but rather than just protecting your meat suit, they safeguard that bigger picture you have of yourself.

Here’s an example.

Have you felt the grief of losing a loved one?

It hurts.

It’s estimated that one hundred twenty people die per minute. Yet you don’t feel the same grief for all those people.

Your feelings only respond to what is associated with your identity. You are experiencing a loss of self, not others’ loss.

Sean Webb says it is all part of a formula related to your perception of yourself.

Expectation = perception

As long as your perception of the world and how it’s treating you is equal to your expectations or preferences, everything’s cool.

When the equation is out of balance, we get emotional. When what we perceive (or our expectations for it) gets really out of kilter, we’re no longer in control. Our emotions kick in.

Going back to my initial question, have you ever really hated a character?

If you analyze the cases where an author has gotten you to hate a character, you’ll see that you’ve invested in the protagonist enough that they’ve become part of you. Better still—you feel they are YOU.

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Suppose the protagonist of your favorite show constantly must confront an antagonist. Your unconscious mind receives a stimulus to the amygdala that your survival is being challenged.

A risk to your self-map because the character and story experience have been added to your self-map.

You hate the antagonist because you see them as an obstacle to the protagonist’s wants—what you want.

This gets more complicated as you see the antagonist as someone equally crucial to the story that you enjoy and value as part of you, yet who angers you because they present as an enemy.

That’s why you have a love-hate relationship with the villain.

I was out to dinner on New Year’s Eve, and two friends were discussing a character in a series and how horrible this person was.

I reminded them that the actor was doing a great job of making them hate the character.

They both acknowledged what I said and then went back to listing all the shameful stuff the character did in the series. They joyfully connected over discussing his many sins.

What I was observing was good “marketing” at work.

The two initially only had one thing in common: Suze and me.

This was their first meeting.

Through conversation, they found commonality by discussing the shows they liked and sharing their feelings about the characters. I’ll talk more about this later when we get into perception and building community, but right now, I want to stay focused on feeling generation.

The writers and actors had done their job.

My two friends talked about an imaginary character as if it were a real person and connected over their common hatred for this character.

That’s how you want your marketing and product to manifest, as a conversation between people at the dinner table.

We need to begin seeing how to weave marketing into your story and story into your marketing.

The more these blur, the more your marketing isn’t seen as marketing, and your books influence future sales.

The product itself influences emotion because it is affixed to their map of self.

The process of reading and providing emotional value is evident if people keep turning pages.

Now, think a layer deeper. Consciously work to get your reader to put your protagonists and antagonists on their map of self. When they see themselves in the character or your character as part of them, they will feel deeper and identify more.

The feelings don’t make your work part of their identity. The feelings show that you’ve done the work to get your characters and story world onto their self-map.

One more thing…

As you begin to write your next books, think about how you can go subliminal with your marketing.

Can you, over time, emotionally charge your books to improve the reader experience and your marketing?

Start by thinking of ways to get your protagonist onto a reader’s self-map. Help them to see the character as part of their identity, or to see through the character’s eyes.

This isn’t an exercise in point of view. It’s one in triggering ego attachment.

Read: The Critical Role of Feelings in Elevating Your Author Business