Emotional Manipulation and Storytelling


People often describe shows they don’t like as “emotionally manipulative.” Don’t all shows do that anyway? What do people mean when they talk about “emotional manipulation” like it’s a bad thing?


“Emotionally manipulative” is a dangerous term because, like “forced” or “pretentious,” it’s often used to describe things that simply didn’t appeal to you personally but you can’t actually critique in a meaningful way. That said, it’s also a very valid term, especially so in anime, which often aims to make an emotional connection or (let’s be honest) pander to the viewer’s desires and preferences.

Emotional manipulation basically comes about when a show shortcuts to a sense of drama, sadness, or basically any other emotion that it hasn’t earned through the narrative itself. Normally, empathizing with a character requires first understanding that character as a valid human being – when you employ emotional manipulation, you use other dramatic tricks to avoid the need to fully characterize people and explain the stakes of their feelings. This generally involves something like introducing a simple character and then immediately providing them with a tragic backstory, in an attempt to get the audience to care purely out of human empathy and projection without doing the work to make the audience believe in that character on their own merits (“it’s sad! feel sad!”). Or it can involve a romance that isn’t shown as a series of exchanges that organically grow the relationship between two characters, but is merely told to the audience as a fact, accompanied by a melancholy color palette and an overwhelming musical score (“true love! feel happy!”).

In a well-told story, the viewer will empathize with the character because they have an individual perspective the viewer can understand and believe in – the character might not actually be anything like the audience, but if the audience can understand where the character is coming from and why what is important to them matters to them, then the audience can deeply empathize with them and understand the significance of the events that happen to them, because all the necessary context is there. This allows for a rich variety of emotional experiences to be transmitted to the audience – unlike emotional manipulation, where you basically have to kill a puppy and play on the audience’s natural tendency to project a lot of themselves into any given situation, actual character writing can make the audience feel legitimately new experiences, because they are adopting the sensibilities of an entirely fabricated character who just happens to be carefully designed enough to pass as a viable person. This will always result in more rich and varied storytelling, and transmits an honesty of human experience that emotional manipulation can only imitate by playing on the viewer’s own existing feelings.

Emotional manipulation can work, obviously, but it’s basically like a magic trick – once you see the trick, it’s no longer magic. Its’ emotional power comes from the viewer investing their own feelings into the narrative and basically “filling in the gaps” of unearned development, chemistry, or whatever with their own personality and emotions. Lasting drama or characters that actually reflect human nature and inspire empathy on their own merits require the hard work that emotional manipulation seeks to avoid.


So it’s basically when a show tries to “trick” you into feeling an emotion using methods other than organically developing its characters or relationships?


It’s sometimes a tricky thing to specifically point to, since good writing is not an on-off switch, it’s a spectrum. But in general, yeah, I’d say it’s when a show skips the work of making you empathize with a situation or character naturally through elaborating their perspective in an organic way (showing), and instead immediately attempts to buy your sympathy with a tragic backstory or overwrought music or something (telling). This can be effective, but it in itself is not good storytelling, and in general cues like that should accompany the substantive kind of storytelling. People generally only raise the call of manipulative storytelling because the traditional storytelling is lacking, and because of this it’s failed to emotionally invest anyone who wasn’t already predisposed to caring about the story.


But isn’t all storytelling basically emotional manipulation of one kind or another? It seems like you’re referring to emotional manipulation as a net negative when in reality any story that wants you to feel anything is being “emotionally manipulative.”


You’re right – basically any work of art that seeks to elicit an emotional response in the viewer is trying to create emotions that weren’t naturally there, thus “emotionally manipulating” the viewer. It’s all a matter of degrees, and there’s no hard line, but I was mainly trying to pin down what people are generally talking about (and why they feel that way) when they use it a pejorative sense. Because I think it definitely is a valid complaint – being absolutely unwavering in your belief that one story manipulates well and another poorly is bad, but a story’s ability to elicit an emotional response through well-told drama and a progression of events which both inform and engage the viewer is something that can definitely be meaningfully critiqued.

I think a good barometer here might be “would someone with reasonably informed media preferences and no reason to be predisposed towards this character/story/situation be engaged by this drama?” Because I think the major reason the shortcut-style emotional manipulation is so common is that it is very successful (in fact, probably more successful than traditional storytelling) for audiences that want to be manipulated in a particular way. If you go to the movies wanting to watch a tragic love story and cry, goddamnit you are going to cry. If some single element of a fairly simplistic character deeply appeals to you, you will deeply care about what happens to them. If you want to watch somebody blow up Nazis and fist pump for justice, then yeah, you’ll do that too. Most people want to be manipulated, they just want to be manipulated in different ways.

12 thoughts on “Emotional Manipulation and Storytelling

  1. What an interesting post. “You’re right – basically any work of art that seeks to elicit an emotional response in the viewer is trying to create emotions that weren’t naturally there, thus “emotionally manipulating” the viewer.”
    Hmmm….well, I don’t TRY to elicit an emotional response from anyone with my work. But readers tell me how deeply they’re affected.

    Its’ emotional power comes from the
    (No apostrophe. Delete this part of comment. Just meaning to help.)

    • Delete the second paragraph?

      Anyway, yeah, my own creative work is generally about imparting my own genuine emotions and hopefully connecting with people who those feelings resonate with. It feels strange calling this “emotional manipulation,” since that term seems to imply an element of falseness, but I think a discussion of the term has to address the fact that it’s a label which could easily be thrown at almost any work, regardless of that work’s merits.

  2. Pingback: Are you a great storyteller? | Life Prep Coach

  3. There are two narratives that are interesting to talk about in this context- Nina in Fullmetal Alchemist (the original series, that did that arc much better) and the two sibilings in Grave of the Fireflies. In both of them the audience doesn’t relate to the characters themselves because the characters themselves have no character. They’re empty and generic. The big brother acts like a big brother, the little sister acts like a little sister, et cetera. They could be replaced with any other big brother, little sister and little girl. And yet the audience connects with them- because their story is a story of circumstances. It’s what happens around them that defines them and not what they do and think. And later, when these characters meet their brutally tragic end, the audience reacts as expected- shock, sadness, etc.

    I think this is another form of emotional manipulation- manipulating the audience to connect with dull characters because they’re in dire circumstances. It’s not bad, either- the Nina arc was one of the best short arcs of Fullmetal Alchemist and Grave of the Fireflies is one of the most critically acclaimed anime movies. Not only that, sometimes emotional manipulation is necessary- it was a thematic cornerstone of the Fullmetal Alchemist with the intention of shocking and saddening the audience, and making the audience sympathasize with the brutal tragedy is the whole premise of Grave of the Fireflies. It couldn’t have been done without emotional manipulation.

    It’s interesting to see how many works utilize this technique- of making you relate to minor characters because of their circumstances, later killing them for the sake of tragedy and shock. It’s interesting to see where it fails and where it succeeds. For example, many people criticize Grave of the Fireflies for its emotional manipulation (as if it’s inherently bad) but I haven’t heard anything similar about that FMA storyline.

    What do you think makes it feel too contrived, too blatant and too cheap? Maybe when the writers are too brutal and too abusive to their character with the tragedy and the “emotional violence”, so much that it feels unneccessary for the plot and just exaggarated?

    Toying with the audience’s sympathy is hard to do properly. You need to be subtle and make it meaningful, otherwise the audience will feel cheated and belittled.

    • I think how visceral the “abuse” is has to at the very least be in direct proportion to how much much the viewer has already been “taught” to care about that character (something partially reflective of their inherent tendency to sympathize with particular characters or situations, of course), or they’re very likely to disengage. And this of course has a ceiling, and is reflective of other things, such as how specific this particularly tragic moment is to this character’s story (which makes it more personal both in a relatability sense and in the sense that it’s less reminiscent of the generic sad moment), how naturally the moment builds out of the existing variables of the story, and all the tricks of in-moment writing, direction, and music that can either perfectly compliment a moment or tip it into overt manipulation. But this line becomes a lot less fine if a show has done its homework – people are far more willing to either substitute their own empathy for understated aesthetic choices or buy into bombastic ones if they’re fully on board with the characters involved.

      As far as Grave of the Fireflies versus FMA goes, I haven’t seen either yet, but that might even be a reflection of the audience for each – as a world-renowned Ghibli film, Fireflies has likely been viewed by far more critical viewers naturally inclined to tear apart films containing even a hint of manipulation or melodrama. But I’d have to see both (and both are on my list) to offer a personal, informed take on it.

      • I agree wholeheartedly with everything you said.

        But there’s another point to it besides brutality for the sake of emotional manipulation- making the audience connect with a character that has no character. Defining characters by what happens to them rather than by what they do.

        I think that when you write characters like that they become a part of the plot- their interactions with other characters don’t matter. Their motives and intentions, if they exist, are usually boring and unimportant, and their only existance serves the tone, the emotional reaction of the reader and the plot itself.

        Whether if done well or not, the most important thing about emotional manipulation is its goal- what were the writers trying to achieve by intending this reaction, how it affects the audience’s view of the plot and the characters and how it affects the plot and the characters themselves.

  4. I agree with the comment about Grave of the Fireflies and FMA. I don’t feel manipulated into feeling something just because the characters themselves aren’t what makes their fates so moving. It’s the sensitivity and subtlety with which their story has been told that makes me care. Although, I do have to say I am a very big fan of characters written so that I’ll start caring about them so much, personally, that I’ll even start forgiving other flaws that might be present within the narrative or animation quality etc., because things just feel so honest and earned throughout that I just want them all to live happily ever after and not having to suffer anymore. (Princess Tutu and Trigun being prime examples for me in that regard. Do I care about and suffer with those characters …) Generally speaking, I don’t like being told what I should feel at moment X. I want to be invited. Which is why Spielberg’s non-popcorn movies never worked for me. “Please cry … NOW.” No, thanks.

    It all boils down to good vs. bad writing in the end, as we could really call all of this “manipulation” of our feelings if we wanted to. But there’s the cheaper and the subtler way. But as I’m a big sucker for epic tragedy, I am able to let myself be cheaply manipulated and still enjoy the outcome, at times, if I’m in the right mood (for the same reasons you mentioned in your last paragraph). Cue epic music, change of light, and melodramatic speech – yeah. It can work for me. But the impact is so much bigger if they got me to invest in the characters and their fates first and then let the hammer fall down. Silently. Casually. Subtly. Not providing me with a quick cry followed by an even quicker catharsis, but with a fist in the stomach that’s going to stay there for a while. Much more uncomfortable. Much less liberating. But so much more rewarding.

    • I think subtlety of groundwork can be even more powerful when you’re trying to reach for those big, bombastic emotional turns – that bleeds in the element of surprise, not just at the resolution as it’s happening, but also at the degree to which you’ve already become invested in the characters. Then loss feels like ACTUAL loss – where suddenly, as some tragic event is taking place, you realize how much you’ve cared about some character all along. Or in the positive direction – some character triumphs and you suddenly realize how much you were rooting for them. There’s a very powerful emotional honesty in those moments.

  5. Yeah, excellent way to put it. One could say that the ultimate test for an “emotional” moment is to put in front of it someone who has absolutely no intention to be moved, like someone who’s expecting a movie full of stuff blowing up, and see if it can make him/her cry anyway.

    I haven’t seen Grave of the Fireflies, but I know the Nina moment in FMA did it for me. I’d add however that it’s not fair to say the drama was not built up there: it was, just in a less direct way. While the character of Nina herself was very bland by then, the Elric brothers were already being defined (and that was one of their most powerful defining moments after all) and it’s through their eyes that we see the tragedy; we don’t suffer so much for Nina as for what these kids have to endure, and how that is affecting their view of the world and their faith in alchemy and its ability to do good. So it’s a slightly more atypical kind of build up, which in a sense makes it even subtler and more fascinating: it’s not about making us care for the character who incurs in a dire fate, but for how that moment affects other characters whose emotional perspective we share.

  6. I agree with what you said about how actually feeling from character requires real development, and basically meaningful things need to “happen” to these characters and we need to be able to observe them.
    But, I think there is an extremely fine line between emotional manipulation and simply not being effective. Maybe the writers or director and aren’t actually thinking: “how do I make the audience care about this character without coming up with more meaningful development?” and rather that they think it is effective when its actually not.
    Personally as a music composer, I feel very powerful emotions when composing certain pieces, yet it does not seem to always translate to a listener. I call it, though it might have an actual name for it, the Artists’ Dilution Effect, where the author feels more about his work because he is th e one actually expressing himself, but is diluted when given to an audience. When I write, I don’t think, “sweeping string sections make people feel emotional, so I should add them.” I think that sweeping string sections make ME feel emotional, and hope to show that to the listener. So rather, I think, many times it’s not someone trying to manipulating you, but instead them being simply ineffective at showing and conveying emotion.
    Speaking of music, I also think it is an extremely fine line when speaking to the musical score being overwhelming to the audience. It is very hard to judge a piece of music in a show, as it can either be assessed as a independent piece or art or by what it achieves, or doesn’t achieve, for the show. It is hard for me to identify what is trying manipulate me and what is simply not effective or “good” enough to make me feel emotion.
    Does anyone else have this dilemma?

  7. All story telling is about manipulating the feelings of the audience, anyone who claims otherwise is full of shit.

  8. I found this post because I think of emotional manipulation embeded in small details, directly in animation of subtle human moves that leads to some kind of emotional “engineering” or “hacking” regarding how each little part of a character moves. Anime is basically “that” with steroids. That was the manipulative part I was looking in some post in the Internet if they could have some similar points of view to mine. Maybe related to the expertise of Disney in the same matter, that could lead us to the same “arcane” expertise of medieval gargoyles (by masons?). Would like to know opinions on this matters, as far as I know every “art” or “expertise” in such things, and I say art because is more that than engineering, is what in ancient ages was called witchery and what the ancient called “magic” is related to it.

Comments are closed.