Writing a Protagonist with Minimal Emotions

I started the draft for this post way back in February I think and it’s curious to see Nikolai’s progression in the manuscript between then and now (July).

I wanted Nikolai to be a psychopath. An accurate psychopath. I researched the hell out of the condition. It’s important to me, both as someone who supports neurodiversity and someone who’s just anal about getting things right.

The problem is that writers usually engage readers with emotion. Readers want to feel something for the characters. It’s difficult enough to get them to care about someone like Nikolai (my hope is that even if they hate him, they stick around just to watch his ass get dragged by Medea, because honestly, it’s the best). The biggest problem I’ve had is when Nikolai is in danger.

Psychopaths’ amygdala is about 18% smaller than average. The amygdala is responsible for our perception of emotions, most notably fear. They just don’t get scared the way most people do. Their reaction to danger is basically “oh, that’s interesting, hmm.” Very matter-of-fact. They don’t get depressed or anxious or worry about things. Their other emotions are generally dulled as well. Some they don’t really feel, others are just very dim, though they can conceptually understand the emotions of others. Boredom is a common problem, because it takes a lot for them to feel anything. They tend to be thrill-seekers because the adrenaline rush allows them to kinda feel something.

This makes it very difficult to write engaging scenes where a psychopath is in danger, because they don’t respond like a normal person would. I’ve been getting around this problem by focusing on the physiological responses (heart rate, sweat, injury) and having Nikolai get mad/annoyed (I’ve since been informed their heart rate wouldn’t go up either, woo).

Went back through my whole text in January and marked all emotional lines in red for potential removal. I was able to rewrite a lot of it.

Well I just got to a scene were he’s worried about something. Psychopaths don’t worry. I mean he can ruminate on solving the problem, but like, that’s difficult to describe in terms that will make it impactful, because emotions are the bread and butter of most stories. I’ve already come to terms with the fact that it will not be 100% accurate, but I’m still shooting for as close as I can get.

Nikolai became increasingly jittery as the afternoon wore into evening. Would she really allow him to leave this place? That night he could barely sleep, certain that he would wake in the morning to find his mind clouded. Medea would shake her head and tell him that he couldn’t possibly go out in such a state, but don’t worry, rest, she could teach him how to use the gateways another day.

He slept in fits and spurts. Finally, when his watch read 5:30 a.m., he felt it was reasonable enough to get up. He dressed quickly and summoned breakfast, eating hastily in the common room. Medea was not yet downstairs. He sat down to read, leg bouncing, but could not focus on what was in front of him and got up again to pace in front of the hearth. A quick tug on the gateway door showed it to still be locked.

An eternity later, 6:04 a.m., Medea came down the stairs. She could not move fast enough and he crowded behind her until she created a shield which kept him at a more respectable distance.
God you’re antsy. I should have shown you how to work it last night. Hand on the door.”


Nikolai lay down to sleep, certain that the next morning he would wake to find his mind clouded. It would be the perfect excuse for Medea to keep him here. She would shake her head and tell him that he couldn’t possibly go out in such a state, but don’t worry, rest, she could teach him how to use the gateways another day.

Perhaps that was why he woke so early. Five-thirty was a reasonable enough time to get up. It would give him a chance to start the day before Medea for once. He dressed quickly and summoned breakfast, eating hastily in the common room. A quick tug on the gateway door revealed it was still locked. He sat down to read a science book she had allowed out of the library. Might as well appear dedicated and studious.

That was back in February. Now it’s July and the scene has changed even more, hopefully for the better. I think I’ve done a much better job building tension in other ways. We’ll see how well the action scenes go down. I’m resorting to straight physical sensations a lot, and sometimes humor. Here’s an excerpt from a big scene in the middle:

A chill shot up his leg and dashed toward his heart. The light winked out. Ice. His heart was pumping ice through his veins. Something clutched his shin. Nikolai couldn’t see his own hands, let alone his leg. He reached toward the thing grasping him. Whatever it was, some of it was soft and yielding.

The moist substance parted before his fingers, until they struck something more solid. A hand? He kicked at it. An inhuman shriek erupted from the ground at his feet, then something scrabbled up his chest, clawing as it went.

He’s not scared here, but it’s definitely grounded in unpleasant sensations that will hopefully engage the reader. My second set of beta readers have yet to reach the meaty action scenes. I’m curious to see how they respond.

© 2019 Val Neil. All rights reserved. Image“#Psychopath (Trending Twitter Topics from 27.06.2019)”by trendingtopics is licensed under CC BY 2.0


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