Beliefs, Choices, and Emotions (Part 1)

Posted by Dwayne on March 29, 2012

As an author, I want to understand the deep connections within us regarding belief, choices, and emotions. Getting this right will enable more realistic characters and offer the reader an opportunity to “connect” with the story and characters in authentic and meaningful ways.

If emotions are the product of reacting to one’s environment, then the key to establishing good emotional content is making sure those environmental conditions fit naturally with the desired character reaction.

On the other hand, if emotions are the product of what someone believes, then the key to establishing good emotional content is understanding what your character believes and how beliefs drive choices and emotions.

The truth is emotions are a bit of both. We usually experience emotions in a reactionary fashion. That is, they are instigated by something happening to us whether that’s a physical event or an internal epiphany. I have a model for the connection between beliefs and choices and emotions that I think represents reality. Consider the following and see if it seems like a good model. If so, then it might be of help in your own writing or any other endeavor where emotional considerations are important.


We have ideas (thoughts, notions, memories, etc.) stored via some biological mechanism in our brains. However, we are not merely the sum of our ideas. After all, some our ideas are anathema to us. For example, I can have the idea of robbing a bank, but I’d never do that in real life.

This means in some fashion we process those ideas and decide what we accept as true and/or valuable. I’ll call this subset of ideas our CORE. Our CORE may not be consistent, since we may well accept contradictory ideas, and the ideas that we do accept may be “believed” only marginally. In other words, the acceptance of beliefs is not a binary yes/no, rather it’s a continuum from 0 to 1, or 1 to 10, or 1 to 100, or whatever scale makes sense to you. Maybe I believe robbing a bank is wrong, but that belief is only 51% and it could be swayed by the right set of circumstances.


As we go through our day, we are faced with thousands of choices. Most of our answers are habitual, not engaging any active thought. However, there are a few that require us to consider options. The truth is all choices require us to consider options, it’s just that habitual responses perpetuate previous decisions.

When faced with a decision, we do some form of mental arithmetic and decide which option seems most valuable to us. And the determiner of value within us flows directly from our CORE set of beliefs. You believe honor is more valuable than riches, so you return the winning lottery ticket to the rightful owner, rather than claim it for yourself.  Or, you believe all that money can offer is more valuable than silly antiquated notions of honor, so you steal the winning lottery ticket from the rightful owner. Belief drives action … always! There might be a feedback loop that evaluates outcome and modifies internal CORE belief, but the choice is always a product of what is believed inside.

So, if we’re writing characters, make sure the choices a character makes is consistent with his/her CORE beliefs. Good writers know this and make a character’s internal motivations realistic and consistent. A character’s beliefs can change over the course of a story, but there had better be a good reason for it. And that reason had better center on the character’s CORE beliefs being challenged.


So, what about emotions? I contend that emotions are also the product of what we believe. Emotions stem from the same CORE that drives action. Everything about us flows from what we believe.

However <continued …>

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