Anger by Temperature

Anger. It’s a common emotion in narratives; I dare you to name me one book, even one short story, in which it never shows up. It motivates, it expresses, it characterizes—most people can’t get away from it, and as long as it stays fictional, fewer with a flair for drama want to. One of the things I find most interesting about anger, though, is the myriad of ways it can be expressed, and people’s ability (or lack thereof) to notice them. There’s variance by person—there’s variance within individuals, by degree—there’s context, there’s outside forces, there’s so much that can be done!

Most of the anger I see in fiction these days, and an even greater percentage of the anger I see in games, is hot anger. This is rage—hot-blooded, reaction-grabbing, hands-on-weapons-or-other-person’s-throat, insult-slinging, obscenity-shouting, pulse-pounding, capslocking, out-of-control, all-out explosions. It’s the kind of thing that triggers fight scenes or the kinds of mutual shouting matches that have half the building vacating in worry about what’s going to happen next.

The nice thing about hot anger, of course, is that it’s next to impossible to miss. If nothing else, the capslocking or the fact that someone’s got a fist about two inches from their face is a bit of a giveaway that the other person there is not at all happy with the situation. In addition, if the object of the game is to tick someone off, it’s infinitely more satisfying than the alternative. (This, I think, is why almost every RPG villain I’ve run into, and a decent number of the ones I’ve played, could be reduced to hot anger under enough pressure. The players love a good “THIS HAS CEASED TO BE AMUSING!”) Granted, it’s not always appropriate to the situation, and there are characters on whom it really doesn’t fit except in extreme situations, but it’s easy, it’s satisfying, and it’s good for chewing up the scenery.

On the other side of the spectrum, you have cold anger. This isn’t near as showy as hot anger, but I’ve found it can be downright effective nonetheless. The character’s body language mainly focuses on stiffness and tension, not on overt expressions of violence—a stiffening here, a flash of active self-restraint there, everything else seething below the surface. Her tone might become more biting, words emphasized and practically thrown at people, but it’s just as likely that she goes from expressionate to deadly calm and nigh-on-unreadable. The character is under control, so she’s not as immediately dangerous, but that doesn’t get you off the hook; she’s under control, so that means she can think. Plot. Plan. Exploit weaknesses. Get what she wants and rip your dignity to shreds in the process. Unfortunately, it’s easy for a character who tends towards cold anger to be dismissed as not feeling at all, and if, as in my game, most of your characters work that way, it’s easy to have what seems like the whole world dismissed as not really caring.

It goes without saying that cold anger is far more common among characters whose main assets are their intelligence or social skills, since cold anger maintains these skills in a way that hot anger doesn’t; hot anger, on the other hand, seems to be more prominent among warrior-types. Likewise, a culture built around conflict breeds—and often respects—hot anger, while cold anger is likelier to be respected and selected for in highly ritualized organizational cultures (bureaucracies seem to be a prime breeding ground). Cold anger is also far more characteristic of villains, at least at their lower thresholds. Part of the reason, of course, is that they’re designed so people will love to hate them, and the apparent unflappability plays into that. I think a bigger reason, though, is that hot anger is seen as more honest. You can tell at a glance that the hotly angry type is ticked off and considering violence, whereas cold anger focuses around not doing the first thing that comes to mind, not giving in to the rage—denial of self. And for many people, it’s a short jump from that to denial of truth.

There’s a lot more to divvying up anger, but this one’s an interesting start. Do you use cold anger? Do you notice it when someone else does?


  1. Michael says:

    I think most of my boss villains tend towards cold anger — I find it makes them more sinister if they don’t easily lose their cool. The moment the villain lets out a Big No, you know he’s defeated; whereas if he remains cool you’re left wondering what else he’s got up his sleeve :) However, I do have one villain (not the boss of her group, but the major antagonist for the duration of one book) who’s as incapable of cold anger as she is of cold-blooded anything else; she’s one character who just doesn’t need cold to be easy to hate, because she’s just *that* cruel in the way she exploits people’s weaknesses and goes out of her way to cause hurt for no other reason than amusement or spite. It’s hard for me to judge, but I think she’s one of my most effective villains :)

    On the heroic side, I use cold anger more rarely. In a few cases, a character whose usual mode is hot anger has a particular berserk button that causes cold anger to be unleashed — this is always a sign that the person who angered them is going to regret it. And then there’s Shizuka — most of the time you don’t see her showing any emotion at all, and when something upsets her, you get disappointment rather than anger. But when something *really* upsets her… you’d better run.

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  1. Anger: Individual Variation | Exchange of Realities
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