Stoic characters or expressive characters?

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Stoic or expressive characters?


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Pinkarray

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Do you prefer characters who are stoic and not very expressive or characters who are more expressive and emotional? Personally, I prefer more stoic/emotionless characters, I know some people think they're boring and have no personality. Yes, they're mysterious but when written well, they can be complex and still as good as an expressive or emotional character. I really don't agree that just because they're stoic, they always have no personality. Yeah, they're harder to write but when written well, they're worth it. They may be more private, reserved and mysterious but it makes them more interesting when as the story goes on, we dig deeper to figure out who this character is and if there are a certain few things that trigger them to show emotions, they would still be a human character.
 
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Kat M

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I like my characters to be layered, like . . . parfaits!

So a well-written stoic character is an absolute treat for all the reasons you described, as we dig into all the things that make them who they are.

That said, a well-written emotional character can be just as interesting to me. You expect them to react with strong emotion, but you can always be blindsided by what triggers—or doesn't trigger—the emotion, or why they're emotional, or how they express their feelings.

As a writer, I am good at giving my characters plenty of layers, but I'm not good at making them stoic. They're all highly expressive, layered individuals. I'd like to write better stoicism.
 

Paul Lamb

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Most of my characters are stoic, but then they're all repressed. I really think it's hard to get an expressive character right. Too many readers bring preconceptions to characters who talk too much or feel too much. Yet these characters can/should have depth far beyond what the reader sees from their expressiveness. And that's the challenge. (I think a stoical character is preconceived as having hidden depth.)
 

litdawg

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I think that characters with control over their emotions appeal to some readers who prize that trait. I tend to write characters who could be described as stoic, but that's mostly because I can't stand it when people spew emotions that don't reflect the decisions they will actually make in life. "Just venting" seems like the norm these days, as though people get to choose when their words/actions affect others and when they don't. Parenting takes the prize for creating situations where stoic (read patient, consistent, even-keeled, and non-reactive) is preferable to expressive. But any authority figure will find herself in situations where indulging in expressiveness just isn't worth the grief it causes other people. And I like characters with the maturity to recognize those situations and who have the self-control to act on what they recognize. Too many protagonists skew towards YA in which they make a fetish of expressing their first emotional reactions rather than their considered, emotionally informed but not controlled decisions. I really liked how JK Rowling transitioned her characterization of Harry in Bk 5 so that readers saw what an undisciplined, prejudiced, and emotion-driven twit he was in most of the early books. It was appropriate because he was getting older. We can sympathize with kids having tantrums or being stubborn about their emotional drives. People with drivers licenses who don't have emotional control are scary.
 

Lakey

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I'm not sure I prefer one or the other -- different stories require characters with different personality types. Indeed, the contrast between a stoic personality and an expressive could be a good source of conflict in a story.

In thinking about this question it occurs to me that the purpose of a story is to create an emotional response in the reader. That response may align with the emotional experiences of the characters or it may not; it might even be completely opposite. Neither a particularly stoic character nor a particularly expressive one is more likely to create an emotional response in a reader, though. It's the situation those characters are in and how they respond to it that creates an emotional response in a reader. A sympathetic character who reacts stoically to a terrible heartbreak might make the reader feel sad. An effusive character who explodes in an unjust rage at someone else might make the reader feel angry. And a character whose outward expression is different from her interior state can be very compelling for creating all kinds of emotional responses, from sympathy to disgust.

In short: Use the emotional responses of your characters, whatever they may be, to create emotional responses in your readers.

:e2coffee:
 
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litdawg

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I'm not sure I prefer one or the other -- different stories require characters with different personality types. Indeed, the contrast between a stoic personality and an expressive could be a good source of conflict in a story.

In thinking about this question it occurs to me that the purpose of a story needs is to create an emotional response in the reader. That response may align with the emotional experiences of the characters or it may not; it might even be completely opposite. Neither a particularly stoic character nor a particularly expressive one is more likely to create an emotional response in a reader, though. It's the situation those characters are in and how they respond to it that creates an emotional response in a character. A sympathetic character who reacts stoically to a terrible heartbreak might make the reader feel sad. An effusive character who explodes in an unjust rage at someone else might make the reader feel angry. And a character whose outward expression is different from her interior state can be very compelling for creating all kinds of emotional responses, from sympathy to disgust.

In short: Use the emotional responses of your characters, whatever they may be, to create emotional responses in your readers.

:e2coffee:

Love it--more succinct than reading the equivalent chapters in Donald Maas's Emotional Craft of Fiction which hammers the same point.
 

birdieb

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Have you seen the movie/play Doubt? Incredible interplay between the stoic+repressed nun, the expressive+charismatic priest, and the audience's--wait for it--doubt about who to trust.

Jolts you right awake to your own biases about all four qualities: stoicism, repression, self-expression, charisma (and maybe even more things that other viewers saw but I missed).

I like all those qualities in characters in whatever degree seems real and true. I love to have myself revealed to myself through my assumptions about characters who then turn out to have hidden (good, bad, or neutral) qualities.
 

ChaseJxyz

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I don't think I have a preference for one over the other if they're both written well; either written poorly can come off as immature/unrealistic or robotic/boring. For writing I think I prefer characters that are, at first, more on the stoic side but that changes as they go through challenges. Some faves I love to see or make:
  • An emotionally closed-off rival/antagonist type who only lowers their defenses when interacting with their (growing) love interest
  • An antagonist who is Always In Control, of everything, including their emotions, but loses it when something doesn't go their way
  • Someone who is trying really hard to emotionless but you can tell they don't really want to be but They Gotta Be for reasons
  • Someone (probably an antagonist) who can switch between the two to manipulate those around them to get what they want (bonus points if they really are very emotional but because of the above it's almost impossible to tell which reactions are genuine and which were just to be manipulative)
I really like to put characters through Tough Things and have them struggle with showing emotions with others so I'm definitely always using both.
 

katfeete

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As a reader, I like both. As a writer, I also like both. In real life, I like expressive people more, but that's largely because I'm from the South so emotionally expressive people are what I grew up with. We do not do the poker-faced thing here unless something is very, very, very wrong. :D

Which is, I think, one part of what's making me feel this question is... hmm, not quite a false dichotomy, but something of the wrong question? Emotional expression is a culturally loaded thing. In contemporary Western culture, for example -- and by this I mean particularly North American and British culture -- it is culturally taboo for men to publicly display any emotion save anger, and culturally allowed for women to express any emotion except anger. Emotional display is coded as a feminine trait, weakness, a lack of control -- thus the frequent complaint that women are "too emotional" for this job or that -- except anger, which is masculine and therefore a show of strength, a way to assert control. In other cultures this is not true. We've had several Latino guys working for us, for example, who would voluntarily watch "chick flicks" and blubber unashamedly over the emotional bits. They were a little puzzled why the men of my family wouldn't. And I've seen that used to dismiss those cultures as lesser than British/American cultures, as irrational, unreasonable, illogical -- you know, girly. Call it the Spock fallacy. "Too emotional" = weak.

Another problem is that it lumps all emotions together: the expressive character who's constantly throwing temper tantrums is a very different beast than the expressive character who's always happy and upbeat, or the passionate enthusiast, or the grief-stricken survivor. And... there's this assumption, which again has some culture background, that the expressive character has less self-control: that displaying emotion takes less effort than not displaying it. Sometimes that's true, but sometimes, not so much. There are a lot of women out there making themselves smile because a smiling woman is invisible, but a blank face is an uncomfortable threat.

So as a writer the interesting question isn't, for me, whether a character is emotive or stoic. It's which emotions they'll show publicly and which privately and which they'd rather be dragged over hot coals than admit to having at all, and why, and when, and how different that makes them from their peers.

In the end they're just different tools in the kit, different ways I can -- as Lakey said, way back there in the depths of 2019 -- draw out the attention and emotion from the reader that I want. A stoic character giving way to an emotional outburst or a loudly expressive character going quiet: either one is an equally powerful moment, handled correctly. It's the handling it correctly that's the fun trick.
 

neandermagnon

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I'm not one for false dichotomies and if a character is just "the stoic" or "the emotionally expressive one" then the character would lack complexity and is in danger of being a stereotype. If either of these is a complex, well-written character's tendency then it won't be that factor which decides whether I like the character or not. Stoical people still cry (maybe in private if they have a choice) and people who tend to be more expressive will still try to hide their emotions if there's a reason to. Showing this can be very effective, e.g. a scene where a normally stoical character cries or expresses anger openly. And someone may be expressive in one environment and quiet in another (e.g. expressive among close friends, quiet among people they don't know that well). Or expressive after a couple of beers, quiet when stone cold sober, etc. People are complex so characters should be too.
 

regdog

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I think it depends on the character. In the Transformer comics, one of my favorite characters is stoic and unemotional. It suits him perfectly. He is an "end justifies the means" character who would willingly sacrifice 100,000 lives to save 1,000,000.

There have been different incarnations of the character, one incarnation of him, he was written as emotional and doing the right thing and it didn't suit him at all. His unemotional, stoic version is the better incarnation. Both versions were well written with good character development and storylines.

The stoic version does get angry sometimes but those moments are written so it fits with his character.