This is your reptilian brain on depression
Deep within every one of us is a brain structure called the Reptilian Complex. It is an ancient and powerful piece of biological machinery, having been part of every vertebrate creature ever to walk the earth or swim the seas. It’s in us, too, and handles the jobs we can’t be bothered to think about all the time, like keeping our hearts beating and breathing.
But for writers, the Reptilian Complex has a much more important job. It is also responsible for the Fight-or-Flight response, the basic survival instinct of all animals—people included—when threatened or cornered: fight, or run away.
Fight-or-Flight and Depression
Readers of this blog will well remember that depression is one of the five stages of grief that give such a useful roadmap for how characters respond when confronted with misfortunes. Had I been cleverer when writing that article on depression, I would have realized the connection between depression and the fight-or-flight response. Alas, I wasn’t, but better late than never.
What keeps people stuck in the depression stage, you’ll recall, is that anxious feeling of not seeing a way out of a bad situation. “Doomxiety,” I called it. In hindsight, this now seems obvious to me, but I didn’t see it at the time. Feeling trapped triggers the Reptilian Complex to initiate that fight-or-flight response.
I want to talk about flight first, because there’s a stronger connection to that sense of feeling trapped. The core of five-stage depression is not seeing any way out of a bad situation, so flight makes sense: running away, in one form or another, is a means to create a way out.
When do characters flee?
But notice, people don’t just immediately run away from bad situations all the time. In fact, flight is usually a last resort, and that’s because flight always involves sacrifice. The choice to run away always means leaving behind something that is of value to the character; if this weren’t so, the character wouldn’t have felt trapped in the first place, because the flight option—which was always there—would have had no down side.
The only thing keeping the character from always fleeing is an unwillingness to leave behind the parts of that bad situation that matter to them. Take bad marriages, for example. People stay in bad marriages all the time, because even if they’re totally unhappy with their spouse, there’s still something about the situation that the person values. Something that makes the flight option unacceptable. Maybe they can’t stand to leave the children, maybe the person came from a poor background but married into money and can’t stand the thought of being poor again, whatever. Something’s keeping them there.
Only when the situation becomes so bad that it outweighs the good parts will a person—or a character—finally choose to run away.
How do characters flee?
When a character finally opts to leave the bad situation behind, no matter the cost, he or she has some options. These fall into three broad buckets:
Panicked flight. This is literal fleeing, a rushed, haphazard, often terrified physical exit from a situation. Lots of yelling and screaming, flailing of arms, you get the picture. This kind of flight is perfect for situations where the character is threatened, but doesn’t have any strong emotional investments in the situation itself. Let’s say your character is walking down the street on his way to a cafe for lunch, when a mugger jumps out of an alley brandishing a knife. Sure, losing out on lunch is, technically, a sacrifice but it’s not a big one. Why wouldn’t he run? Especially if the mugger looks a bit on the fat-and-slow side, why wouldn’t the character run? What earth would make him stay and fight? I mean, is he so committed to getting a ham-on-rye that he’s willing to risk getting knifed? Of course not. In situations like this, a sudden threat that is not coupled to a significant sacrifice, flight makes perfect sense.
Methodical flight. This is a planned escape from a bad situation. Maybe it’s a jailbreak, but this fits any situation where the situation has become so bad that uprooting one’s whole life (or some significant chunk of it) isn’t too much of a sacrifice. These are the dads who go out for cigarettes and just never come back, the employees who just walk out even with no new job to go to. The amount of planning may vary; your typical jailbreak novel will involve an enormous amount of planning, while the deadbeat dad may simply have left with nothing but a wallet and a gym bag hastily stuffed with clothes and a razor. The difference is a lack of panic. This kind of flight is appropriate when the sacrifice is great, but there is no particular rush to escape. Use this when the character has plenty of time to consider the situation before deciding to flee.
Existential flight. This, in a word, is suicide. Suicide, when the result of five-stage depression, is a form of flight. People and characters do this when they’re so convinced there’s no way out of their bad situation except to stop living. This is when a character believes that even picking up stakes and starting over somewhere else won’t actually get them out of the bad situation. Obviously, this is the ultimate last resort, and you should think very, very carefully before putting a character on that path. For one thing, we shouldn’t make light in our novels of what in real life is one of the worst kinds of personal tragedies. For another thing, suicide isn’t going to work in your novel unless you’ve created a situation where the sacrifice—literally everything in the character’s life including all possible future experiences—isn’t enough to outweigh the pain of the bad situation the character is in. To make that believable in a novel is a pretty tall order. There’s no question suicide has its place in literature, but—and I apologize for the wording here—it’s not easy to do it right.
When do characters fight?
The fight half of Fight-or-Flight also relates to the depression stage, but in a different way. Fighting can be the key to reaching acceptance. You can create some powerful moments when the trapped feelings behind depression trigger a fight response. These are moments when the character says “there must be some way out of this, and I’m going to find it!” Tons of great drama there. If you’re looking for a way to get your character into the acceptance stage, this can be a wonderful option because—assuming your readers are actually rooting for your character—they want to see the character reach acceptance. They want to see him push through, survive, win.
You can bring on moments like this in a million different ways. You could have a character fall back on pride or stubbornness as a reason not to flee. You could have the choice to fight come from the culmination of an inner character arc: “Daddy always said I was a no-good loser, but I’m not, damn him, I’m not! And I won’t be now!”
However you bring it on, the common theme behind all of these fight responses is the character realizing that the sacrifice attached to fleeing is just too great. The stubborn, prideful character isn’t willing to sacrifice self-image. The child of the abusive father isn’t willing to sacrifice the personal growth he has already made. Whatever it is, fighting is what characters do when you’ve coupled their bad situation to something of extreme personal value to them.
When our characters realize that nothing is so bad as to be worth that level of sacrifice, that’s when they fight back.
April 30, 2010 18:54 UTC
Standing on magic legs
This is part five in a five part series of detailed explorations into the five stages of grief model of emotional response.
You have to pity poor Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump. The poor guy goes through a lot after getting his legs shot off in Vietnam. He’s a great example of the five stages. He really shows them, especially anger and depression.
What I love about Lieutenant Dan is this moment of acceptance near the end of the movie. Here, we’ve seen Lt. Dan at the worst points of the five stages. We’ve seen him in drunken stupor. We’ve seen him raging against life and God. We’ve seen him in the blackest of black moods.
But here, we see him standing on his “magic legs” as Forrest calls them, happy. Because for all that he has been through, he has finally reached acceptance.
Acceptance is moving on with life. A character reaches it only when his old view of the world—the one that was invalidated by whatever misfortune he had to face, the one he held on to through three avoidance stages—fully gives way to a new world view that incorporates the reality of the misfortune plus its consequences. Seeing Lieutenant Dan, standing on new legs and with a new love by his side, is a powerful visual metaphor for acceptance.
As I wrote in the depression article, depression comes from either true grief, or from “doomxiety.” Consequently, the way characters express acceptance as they overcome these varieties of depression also take different forms.
Acceptance after true grief. There are four categories acceptance behaviors fit into. Well, there are probably more than that, but these are the big ones.
Re-engaging with life. Grief can make people withdraw from the friends, families, jobs, and all the other meaningful aspects of life. If your protagonist has done this, show acceptance by letting the character re-engage with life. Let him call an old friend for dinner or a movie, or get out of bed to go play catch with his kid in the backyard. This re-realization of what’s really important in life is classic acceptance.
Reaching out to the world. Grief can also make a character pull away from the whole world. Acceptance, then, means reaching back out to the world. Acceptance means gaining a new, forward-looking attitude. One that is characterized by justifiable hope for the future. Look for actions your character can do that fit with your story and which the character wouldn’t do if he didn’t have any hope that his actions could yield a positive result. And note, buying a lottery ticket doesn’t count. That’s not justifiable hope, that’s desperation.
Being creative. Grief also blocks people’s creative urges. Painters don’t have the will to pick up a brush, chefs lose interest in finding innovative new combinations of ingredients and techniques. Whatever artistic impulses a person has, whatever joy he takes in the act of creativity, is blocked. So, showing your protagonist taking up his particular art again is a wonderful way to show acceptance without being too heavy-handed about it.
Shifting perspective. Finally, characters can show acceptance by reaching a new perspective on past events. For example, if your protagonist has lost a loved one, he will have spent some time in the depression stage, literally grieving for the loss of that person. But when he reaches acceptance, he may be able to view the person’s death in a new light. He may instead be able to focus on the good parts of the person’s life, the experiences he shared with that person, the positive impact that person’s life has had on the world.
I love a good example, and recently I found one in Natalie Standiford’s How to say Goodbye in Robot. She wrote one of the sweetest moments of perspective shifting acceptance I’ve ever read. I won’t say too much because I don’t want to spoil what is a wonderful book, but in it there’s a character who experiences a perspective shift about someone he has lost. In it, while musing about the possibility that the departed person might be a ghost, he says:
“If he haunts you, you’re lucky.”
Pure acceptance. And if you want to know how powerful this can be for the reader, I’ll offer the opinion that the book is worth reading for that one line alone.
Acceptance after doomxiety. As I wrote last time, “doomxiety” is a foreboding sense of anxiety over bad consequences of a misfortune that a character feels are inevitable. Doomxiety is most relevant for situational misfortunes, which are often the exact kinds of roadblocks we throw in front of our characters in order to make them struggle for success.
Doomxiety comes when you confront a character with a plot obstacle that seems insurmountable. Your character feels stuck because he has no plan for conquering the obstacle, and a belief that he’ll never find a good plan. Consequently, you can show a character moving from doomxiety to acceptance by combatting those elements.
Change the belief. Particularly effective is showing the moment when your protagonist realizes that the present—the bad consequences—may indeed suck, but that there is a way to cope. Show the character changing his belief from “there is no plan for coping with this situation” to “there must be a way to cope, and I’m going to find it.” Even if he doesn’t know what that plan is, just changing to a belief that there’s a plan out there waiting to be found signals the character’s first steps in getting un-stuck.
Find the plan. Next, show the character actually finding the plan. Having a belief in the future is wonderful, but let it bear fruit. Let your protagonist find that plan for how he’s going to get past whatever problem you’ve tossed at him.
Implement the plan. Your character may have found the best plan in the world for confronting the problem he’s facing. But he isn’t truly un-stuck until he takes action. He must put that plan into motion before readers will really believe he has moved into acceptance.
Conclusion Above all, what you must realize about acceptance is that it is the moment of emotional resolution to all that has come before. While bargaining may be the most dispensable stage in this whole long emotional process, acceptance is not. In fact, acceptance is not so much required as it is inevitable; unless you end your novel in the middle of the depression stage it is difficult to imagine how you could skip it. Acceptance is shown through the hopeful, forward-looking, resolute actions that a character takes following a misfortune. How could you even move your plot forward without showing it?
The trick is to make it believable. The trick is to make it feel real in the reader’s heart. The trick is to show acceptance in a way that gives readers an emotional resolution to everything they’ve witnessed the character endure before. When done really well, acceptance comes without fanfare and trumpets. If the stage has been properly set by using the first four stages of grief as a blueprint, acceptance can pass in a single line of dialogue—If he haunts you, you’re lucky—and yet still carry such impact as to justify your whole novel.
< Back to part 4: Depression | Coming Wednesday: Bonus Part 6!
April 05, 2010 19:21 UTC
The five stages of grief
There’s nothing worse than a book where the characters simply don’t act like real people. I’m not talking about action books where ninja-like characters with finely honed skills fly from building-top to building-top as casually as if they were stepping out to pick up the morning paper. What I’m talking about are books where the characters do not act in emotionally credible ways.
We’ve all seen this. The classic example (which is one reason why I titled this article “The Five Stages of Grief") is when a one character dies and a surviving character fails to grieve appropriately. Obviously, the level of grief that is appropriate will vary depending on the relationship the writer has created between those two characters. But all too often writers simply omit entirely any kind of natural and expected emotional response.
Emotional credibility is key to creating believable characters.
It’s not just about grief, although grief is an obvious and dramatic case. You have to do this everywhere. In every situation in your whole novel, your characters must display credible emotional responses, or the whole book is going to fall flat.
Most of us are familiar with the psychological concept of “The Five Stages of Grief.” It is a pattern, a predictable sequence, of emotional responses that normal human beings go through when confronted with tragedy. The other reason I titled this article “The Five Stages of Grief” (and yes, I’m going to repeat that phrase a lot, because you need to learn it) is because those stages are a road map for producing emotional credibility in your scenes, and thus, creating believable characters.
So what are the Five Stages of Grief? Whole books have been written to answer that question, but briefly:
Denial: Simple, literal disbelief that the tragedy, whatever it is, is real. Denial is disbelief even in the face of hard evidence. Nobody wants to have a tragedy happen to them or to a loved one, so the immediate emotional response is simply to deny it. This isn’t rational, but it’s what normal human beings do.
Anger: After getting past denial, once a person confronts the ugly fact that the tragedy is real, comes anger. Simple ire and rage that this tragedy should have happened at all, or often, that it has happened to them personally.
Bargaining: Once the anger passes, bargaining is the natural inclination to try to strike a deal with whatever authority figure is relevant to the tragedy, be it God, a physician, a policeman, an insurance adjuster, whoever. After anger, people will try to negotiate their way out of the tragedy in one way or another. This, I must add, should almost always prove to be a futile exercise.
Depression: Denial didn’t work; the tragedy didn’t go away by ignoring it. Anger didn’t work; the tragedy can’t be scared off. Bargaining was a flop; what’s done is done. With all strategies for un-doing the tragedy exhausted, the natural response is to be sad about it. This can range from being mildly bummed out to full-blown clinical depression, but this is what comes next.
Acceptance: Finally, when all is said and done, a person moves to acceptance. The person comes to a place where they may not be happy about the tragedy, but they’ve accepted the immutable reality of it and have decided to move on with their lives. This is when the person starts to act again, to really live again, by making the best of their situation.
That’s your road map. Whenever your characters are faced with tragedy, we’d better see them exhibit those emotional responses, or we’re going to have an awfully hard time believing in them as real people.
I wish this psychological road map wasn’t labeled with the word “grief,” because that implies that the road map only applies when characters face truly dire, truly tragic situations. Although I’ve used the word “tragedy” in the above descriptions, the truth is that the five stages apply to all kinds of tragedies, large or small. Although this model of emotional response originated through studies of people faced with terminal illness and other truly life-changing situations, where serious grief is in play, the road map applies everwhere.
As writers, we need to learn to generalize this framework. Call it “The Five Stages of Misfortune” if it helps, but understand that this model applies at all scales. On a grand scale, you could write a five-book epic about a character learning to come to terms with a true tragedy, devoting a whole book to that person’s processing of each stage. On a small scale, the whole five-stage drama can flash by in a couple of paragraphs, for calamities that are much less consequential to the character’s life.
Depending on the situation, you have a lot of leeway with the five stages. The stages don’t always come strictly one after the other. They often overlap. Sometimes you can skip a stage. But by and large, we should see hints of all five as the ripples that spread from each misfortune you subject your characters to.
Let’s take a quick example of how, even in a very short scene or very brief moment from a story, you can convey all five stages. Watch how it lends emotional credibility to the scene, and how you find yourself empathizing with the character. Let us set this scene in a Chicago tenement house, in the early years of the 20th century, in a small, dark, drafty, and dirty apartment on the fourth floor. In this scene, a young husband nervously awaits the birth of his first child, pacing outside the bedroom where the midwife is practicing her craft.
“Gregor!” the midwife yelled from the bedroom. “I need towels. Clean ones!”
“Yes, alright,” Gregor called back. He rushed down the apartment’s narrow hallway to the linen cupboard. He flung open the doors. There were no towels.
No, we can’t be out of towels now! He shoved aside rags and bars of soap, peering into dark corners, finding nothing.
“Damn and blast,” Gregor swore under his breath. He dashed to the apartment’s small bathroom. Perhaps there were some in the laundry basket that had yet to be put away. Please, God, let there be some. Pulling a wrinkled work shirt out of the basket, he held it quickly to his nose. It stank of sweat and of the slaughterhouse. He threw the shirt back; if there were any towels buried under his dirty laundry, they were far from clean.
“Gregor!” the midwife called again.
“I’m looking!” he shouted back. If my child dies for want of a towel— Gregor shoved the thought aside and dashed out again towards the front door. He was across the hall in an instant, pounding furiously on the neighbors’ door. “Anna, Peter, I need towels!”
It’s not a long scene, but we see all five stages. Note, too, that the tragedy is very simple: no towels. It’s very minor on the grand scheme of things, but it still demands a credible emotional response from the character, because for him the stakes are high. As far as he knows, his child’s life may depend on his ability to provide clean towels. If less was at stake—say, if the baby had already been born and the midwife only wanted towels so she could clean up the mess—Gregor’s reactions would be commensurately smaller.
Gregor’s short bit of inner monologue after opening the linen cupboard reflects denial, that brief feeling of “What? How can we be out of towels now, of all times?” He mutters a brief curse, betraying his anger and frustration at the situation. He thinks of an alternative, one he knows to be a long shot and bargains with God to let there be clean towels in the laundry basket. Of course, there aren’t. All his immediate strategies for making this no-towels tragedy go away have failed, pushing him into a moment of depression as he briefly contemplates what’s at stake, implying to himself and to the reader how sad the situation might turn out to be. But there’s no time to dwell on what might happen. No, Gregor must act. In noveling terms, he must drive the scene. He accepts the situation, and makes the best of it by banging on the neighbors’ door for help.
As you write, and especially as you edit, I want you to consider the dramatic moments in your story. Consider the times when you let something bad—be it big or small—happen to your characters, and ask yourself whether you have shown credible emotional responses in every case.
Remember, every story moves forward through characters overcoming obstacles, and on some level every obstacle is an instance of something bad happening to the character. Every single one is an opportunity to show your characters’ personalities, by giving them appropriate five-stage emotional responses to those obstacles.
August 07, 2009 22:07 UTC
For older posts, see archive links in the sidebar