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I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!

This is part two in a five part series of detailed explorations into the five stages of grief model of emotional response.

After denial comes anger. Pictured here is Peter Finch’s character from the movie Network, in which he delivers what is perhaps the original epic rant, culminating in the immortal line “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Finch’s character is a TV news anchor. He has been living in denial for too long—expressed in the “ignore it and carry on as if nothing happened” mode—about the dysfunctional relationship between the media, the public, and the corporate and governmental powers that control our lives. This scene is where his denial finally gives way to anger.

If you haven’t seen this movie—and a lot of readers may not have, as the movie itself never achieved quite the mass consciousness that Finch’s immortal quote has—it’s worth watching for this scene alone. Watch it, and feel the dramatic power of that anger unleashed. Pay attention to how right it feels, emotionally, when Finch’s character finally stops denying an ugly truth he has ignored for so long.

Anger is the first sign of recognition

After all, you can’t really be mad at something that doesn’t exist, nor can you be mad at something you don’t see as a problem. And the previous stage, denial, is all about preventing your characters from recognizing the existence and problematic nature of the misfortunes that you, the writer, throw at them.

So give us some anger to signal this critical change in the character’s view of the situation. It may be a Finchian epic rant. It may pass by in a moment, with little more than a look of rage flashing across someone’s face. But we’d better see some anger or we won’t really believe that the character truly gets the situation. Anger is your tool for showing the reader that the character understands.

Anger is incredibly versatile in how you show it. I hardly think you need me to list different ways of showing anger—if you do, I’ll have to ask what planet you grew up on first. However, anger isn’t just a one-trick pony. It can do a lot more than simply show that change from denial of a problem to recognition of it. Anger also shows a lot (really, really a lot) about your characters. When you’re deciding what form the anger should take, it pays to ask yourself these three questions:

How is the character expressing the anger? You’ve got two broad options here, inwardly or outwardly. Some people seethe in a quiet rage. Others—like Finch—explode. Consider your character’s personality. If he’s a quiet, introspective thinker, you can go with a more inwardly directed form of anger. If your character is a more impulsive, action oriented person, then an outwardly visible expression may serve you better.

Who or what is the character directing the anger at? Anger comes from many sources, but remember, here we’re talking about the anger that follows denial. Inherently, this type of anger that stems from situations a character doesn’t like. But that leaves the character with a bit of a dilemma in expressing the anger: where do you direct it? You can’t exactly yell at a situation. It won’t hear you.

But you can yell at people around you. You could go stare in the bathroom mirror and yell at yourself. You could punch a hole in a wall. We talk metaphorically about “releasing” anger, as though it were a some noxious gas held in a pressurized bottle. Literally, that’s not true but it’s a great metaphor because it helps you think about how a character can plausibly express the anger. When released—when converted into outward expression—it has to go somewhere.

A character’s choice of who or what they direct that situational anger at tells the reader volumes about their personality. Someone who punches a hole in a wall is very different than someone who goes to the gym, puts on a pair of puffy gloves, and takes their anger out on an innocent punching bag. They are both outward, violent expressions of anger directed towards inanimate objects. Yet, the difference could not be clearer: one is impulsive and reckless, risks a broken hand, and only creates another mess to deal with later. The other recognizes the anger, the need to deal with it, and the wisdom of dealing with it in a way that isn’t going to harm anyone or cause any messes.

Why is the character expressing anger this way? That may seem like a silly question, since of course the character is angry because of some situation he doesn’t like. But that’s not the question I want you to ask. Don’t confuse “why is the character angry?” with “why is the character expressing his anger in this particular way?” That is, does the character have any other motives for choosing this particular mode of venting his anger?

Again, let’s look at Peter Finch’s character from Network. The situation that has him so riled up, the root cause of his anger, is that he is finally admitting that the TV news media isn’t doing a good job of engaging with the public so as to cause the public to be properly incensed at what’s going around them. The news media are down-playing real and serious social injustices that Finch’s character believes people ought to be mad about. Thus he has chosen to engage in a live, on-air epic rant with a purpose. He wants to wake people up, to energize them towards a higher purpose of demanding better from their world. In that sense, it is a very noble expression of anger.

On the flip side, you have characters who go ballistic simply because they lack any internal self-governance. They flip out because they aren’t mature enough to do anything more useful with their anger. You can use these two alternatives—conscientious anger versus pointless anger—or something in between to show differences both in maturity and intellect: if a character has an opportunity to direct their anger in a way that helps address the underlying situation, then certainly it would be clever of them to do so.

Conclusion. When a character is done with denial, give us some anger. But be strategic in the kind of anger you let the character show. Ask yourself the how, the who-and-what, and the why behind the character’s expression of anger. Use it to do more for your scene, for your character, and for your book than simply to signal the shift from denial to recognition.

< Back to part 1: Denial | Forward to part 3: Bargaining >

March 29, 2010 18:57 UTC

Tags: character, emotion, believability, grief, anger

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Dramatic frustration: remember to keep the emotions real

Last week I wrote about how you can steal your character’s shoes in order to bring a dull character to life and create a mounting sense of drama in your plot. It’s an effective technique, but it’s not the only one for achieving those ends.

A related technique is not to steal their shoes, but rather, to make their shoes irrelevant to the task at hand. Show them that they’ve got the wrong tools for the job.

The goal is to find whatever skills and strengths makes your protagonist and everyone else believe she’s the right woman for the job, then reveal that the job isn’t what everybody thought it was so those skills are no good after all. It’s like shoe stealing, in that it forces the character to develop new skills or rely on abilities she isn’t confident about, but there’s a critical difference.

The character’s emotional response isn’t the same

If you steal the character’s shoes—if you literally make character’s assets unavailable—the character should respond with some form of the Five Stages of Grief. You’ve just subjected them to a loss. Any loss, whether it’s killing off the character’s beloved sidekick or simply taking away your sharpshooter heroine’s sniper rifle, should evoke the same pattern of emotional responses. The only difference is degree.

However, if you let the character keep her shoes but make the shoes useless, the character should show a different emotional response. There are a variety of emotions that would be believable, in response to realizing that there’s a mismatch between the character’s skills or tools, and the job at hand, depending on the situation. You’ll have to put on your empathy hat to figure out which one is right, but then, we writers ought to have that hat sewn onto our heads permanently anyway:

Frustration. This choice is apt when it’s the mismatch is the character’s own fault, or when she can credibly believe it’s her own fault. Think about how you feel when you set out to do some little odd job around the house, like tightening a loose screw on a cupboard door, only to find that you’ve trudged all the way down to the garage and back up to the kitchen with a Phillips-head screwdriver instead of a flathead. Frustrating. If the job has to be done under any sort of time pressure or other chaotic situation, that only compounds the feeling.

Anger. This is a good choice when the mismatch isn’t the character’s fault. If someone sent the highly trained sharpshooter heroine on a mission that turns out to involve sabotaging a battalion’s worth of the enemy’s heavy artillery, she would justifiably be angry about it. The core response is some version of “Why the hell did they send me?”

Fear. Consider a fear response when the stakes are high, and the mismatch elevates the danger of death or injury from failing to get the job done. The character’s sudden realization that she isn’t nearly as well equipped for the job as she thought could easily trigger a fear response. This applies to male characters just as well as female characters.

Humor. Let’s face it, sometimes a mismatch is just plain funny. Surprise is the core element of much humor, and on some level it’s going to be a surprise to turn the character’s expectations how she’s will deal with the situation on their ear. You can do this to lighten the tone of the book, at least briefly, if things have been dark and heavy for a while. Give the characters—and the reader—a little emotional high spot in the middle of the drama.

Mix it up Try combining some of these four core emotional responses into more complex, nuanced feelings. For example, combine fear and humor into a terrified character letting out a desperate laugh. Let her be laughing not in the face of danger, but simply because it’s the only way to keep her sanity while trying to survive the situation. This can create not only a vivid scene, but can work to underscore the sensation of crisis.

Always keep the emotions real.

Whatever you do, the strategy remains the same: create an obstacle for your protagonist by changing the situation she previously felt confident about into one she is ill-equipped to deal with. Watch her struggle through it, and while she does, pay careful attention to creating a believable display of emotions. Nothing sabotages a character faster than when her emotions don’t match the situation.

October 16, 2009 19:40 UTC

Tags: character, drama, crisis, frustration, anger, fear, humor, emotions

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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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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

Tags: character, emotion, emotionally credible, believability, grief, misfortune, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, towels

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