Emotionally intelligent characters?

Readers may seek out stories with a hero with greater than average athletic ability and high intelligence because they are drawn to the larger than life character who is strong or ingenious. However, when a reader asks for a character that exhibits more emotions are they asking for higher emotional intelligence or less of this ability. 

What exactly is emotional intelligence? Imagine that you are sitting down to a holiday dinner at which a number of friends and family have gathered. The host, Micaela is young, a bit nervous, rushing about trying to please the guests. Timidly she offers a plate of  finely ground patties, in a plate of brownbroth. When asked “What is it?” she responds smiling, “Pate foie gras… goose liver paste.” Sandy, sitting across the table momentarily curls up the side of her mouth in a sign of contempt.

Thoughts go rushing through your head. Did Micaela not see Sandy’s expression? Is she insulted by that look of disgust? Perhaps you should comment about what delicacy pate foie gras is to show your empathy for Micaela. But then, maybe Sandy finds force feeding geese a type of animal cruelty and the expression of disgust was an automatic gut response. Perhaps, you should encourage Sandy to speak up by reminding your host that some people may have ethical reasons not to eat this dish.

Part of emotional intelligence is the ability to read others feelings. This skill of quickly detecting emotions can provide helpful insights into other characters, a useful trait for a protagonist. Emotional intelligence can be welded as a weapon to point out rivals’ doubts that they thought they were concealing. It can be used to find the secret to persuading others to join one’s side, when there isn’t a real reason to do so. 

However, what most people refer to as an emotionally expressive character is one that shows emotions so blatantly no intelligence is required to read them. They clench their fist in a ball whenever anger strikes. One the other hand, a glowing grin spreads across their face to announce their happiness to the world.

Research on emotion recognition has shown that people who are skilled in reading feelings have often gained that ability to serve themselves, rather than others. People who exhibit the personality trait, exploitativeness, (part of the scale to measure narcissism) are as good at reading expressions or emotion as empathetic people are. Two studies at the University of Michigan resulted in this same conclusion. The major difference between subjects that scored higher in dispositional empathy and those that had narcissistic tendencies of a similar magnitude, is that the exploitative people could recognize negative emotions better. Researchers theorize that this enables them to detect vulnerability in others. [1]

People tend not to hide “positive” expressions of happiness and contentment as much as they conceal negative emotions involving anger, fear, disgust, etc. In the practical everyday realm the narcissists are better at reading hidden emotions. However, do readers really want narcissistic protagonists? Probably not. It seems like emotionally expressive characters are more naive and possess less emotional intelligence than the antagonists who are able to wield this trait to serve themselves. 

Back to the dinner table example… have you decided to empathize with the nervous host or disgusted guest? Perhaps considering the kind of person who can read negative emotions the best, you should just be quiet and not say anything at all.

[1] Konrath, S., Corneille, O., Bushman, B.J., and Luminet, O. The Relationship Between Narcissistic Exploitativeness, Dispositional Empathy, and Emotion Recognition Abilities Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, March 2014, Volume 38, Issue 1, pp 129-143

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