Emotionless Characters

December 5, 2009 at 2:00 am (Character, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , )

What is with the labelling of characters emotionless?  Is it even possible to exhibit no emotion?

Most of the examples I’m going to be discussing come from television, mostly because the books I read don’t tend to deal with this.  There will be some spoilers.

The reason I criticise this is because in most cases the character that has just claimed to be emotionless (or been described as such) proceeds to emote their way through the rest of the plot.  Admittedly they are emoting in really odd ways and respond quite a bit differently to situations than others would but they are exhibiting emotion.

Example 1 – Equilibrium

I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie.  It stars Christian Bale and is actually not a bad action movie.  The plot however is built around the idea that after the third world war the government outlawed emotion and developed a drug that essentially removed it from people as long as they inject it daily.  Anyone who does not take the drug is executed.  Fair enough.

What doesn’t work is the fact that they show us a flashback of our protagonist watching as his wife is arrested for feeling.  As the guards move against her he firstly attacks them (defending her) and then, when they tell him that they have a warrant, he glares at his wife and the expression is contempt and fury and highly emotional.  Skip to the future and the current guy in charge is issuing orders, which he does by shouting in rage and pounding his desk, and maybe we are supposed to believe that the higher-ups get away without taking the dose because they are the puppet masters, but surely someone trained to arrest people experiencing emotion would recognise that?

Then there is the question of whether experiencing emotions makes you suicidal because Christian Bale’s character does everything short of tie a flashing red light to his head to draw attention to the fact that he isn’t taking his dose.  Watch the scene where he randomly reorganises his desk.  Could he be anymore conspicuous?

Equilibrium – loved watching it, enjoyed the fight sequences very much.  Are the characters emotionless?  Not a chance.

Example 2 – Rei Ayanmai – from Neon Genesis Evangelion

Rei they can probably get away with as she isn’t technically described to be emotionless within the series, it is reviewers of the series who claim she doesn’t have emotions.  Certainly she is detached and a little odd (okay, she is a lot odd) but she isn’t emotionless.  She has a clear attachment to her creator, and as the series progresses her attachment to Shinji becomes significantly developed.  She constantly exhibits a sense of duty and while she has no regard for her own life, Rei works hard to ensure the success of the mission.  This is emotionally driven.

Example 3 – Dexter

I don’t know what Dexter was like in the books but in the television series he is a constant whirl of emotions.  The fact that he is socially awkward is quite clear and the fact that he can’t read emotions in others is made apparent but he is constantly experiencing a flow of emotions.  He feels confused and put-off quite frequently and experiences annoyance regularly.  Once again we have a character who is off kilter with the ‘normal’ expectations of an emotional spectrum but he is most certainly experiencing emotions.

My conclusion:  I don’t think it would be possible to create a truly emotionless character.  I certainly wouldn’t be able to do it.  As humans we’re too tied up in emotional responses to truly separate them all from the character.

What do you think?



  1. Corra McFeydon said,

    What about a psychopathic character like Hannibal Lecter? I’ve never seen the Silence of the Lambs, so perhaps emotion is revealed, but as I understand it psychopaths are without the ability to recognize or feel emotion.

    Perhaps they’re able to feel anger?

  2. Elizabeth Spann Craig said,

    I think it would be challenging to create a *likable* protagonist who is emotionless. And we do want readers to identify with the character or at least want to follow them. But I’ve read a few characters lately with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome and it worked out fairly well.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

    • Eileen said,

      Have you by any chance watched “Community” on NBC? They have a character with Asperger’s Syndrome, Abed.

  3. Cassandra Jade said,

    It would be really hard to connect with someone who has no emotions. I don’t know that I would ever like to try to create such a character.

  4. Max said,

    I wouldn’t say psychopaths are without emotions. They have so much compulsion that they go out and kill people. I think their problem is that they don’t have any capacity for seeing other people as feeling. Other people are objects, like rocks or chairs.

    I think the “best” fictional character study of a psychopath isn’t Hannibal Lecter, but Dexter in Jeff Lindsay’s novels.

  5. Eileen said,

    I’d have to agree with Max. Dexter is a character study of a man who was traumatized as a young child. He went on to be a mass murderer. He is also a man who, besides his compulsion to kill, has a compulsion to kill other killers, and thereby somehow justifying his behavior. He also realizes that while other people have emotions, he doesn’t. He’s trying to fit into his world of family and co-workers and to experience the range of human experience, while at the same time continuing to kill – a compulsion that he can not avoid. What’s fascinating about Dexter is his struggle to become fully human.

  6. nymeria87 said,

    I agree with Max and Eileen and would also go a step further by asking: if psychopaths do not act the way they do not out of a lack of emotions, but out of a lack of control over those emotions? Like Max said, they mostly do lack any sense of compassion, but at the same time their behavior usually is governed by strong emotional urges, such as the urge for revenge or redemption in Dexter or, as in a particularly gruesome case of cannibalism that happened in Germany a few years ago, it has been argued that the victim as well as the perpetrator had conflicting emotions as far as self-worth etc are concerned.
    Those are really extreme and disturbing examples, but as a writer I definitely second that you can’t create a truly emotion-less character. Plots after all are driven by a character’s emotional journey and conflicts, without those we neither have engaging characters that keep our audience reading, nor a plot.

  7. Cassandra Jade said,

    Some great points from everyone. Thanks all for your comments.

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