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Make 'em beg!

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

Look at that kid. Pathetic, isn’t he? I wonder what he’s begging for. Candy? Ice cream, maybe? Five more minutes to play? Whatever it is, do you think he’s going to get it?

Fat chance.

If you’ve read part 1 and part 2 of this series, you know that the first two stages in the five stages of grief are denial and anger. After that comes bargaining, or as it’s better known to any parent whose kids are at least three years of age, hopelessly pathetic begging.

Psychologically, here’s what’s going on. When you encounter an unpleasant surprise, you first go through denial, which gets you nowhere. Next, you experience anger, because the unpleasant surprise represents an affront to your mental view of how the world should be. But anger doesn’t change anything either. You’re still left with the same unpleasant surprise you had in the beginning. Now you’re beginning to get worried: You might actually have to deal with this unpleasant surprise, and who wants that? No thanks!

So what do you do next? You appeal to a higher power. You plead with whoever or whatever seems to have actual control over the situation. If you’re a kid, it’s probably your mom or dad. If you’re a person who just received a diagnosis of a terminal illness, the authority figure is probably your doctor. If you’ve simply experienced an ordinary bit of random bad luck, the authority figure might be God.

Whoever or whatever it is, you beg. You shamelessly and desperately beg.

Psychologists call this stage “bargaining,” but if you ask me that’s completely wrong. Bargaining implies a rational discussion between peers, which this definitely isn’t. This stage of the emotional process of coming to terms with misfortunes, whether great or small, is anything but rational. In this stage, people flat-out beg. They’ll abase themselves horribly in the slim hope of somehow avoiding the problem.

Regardless, to call it begging or bargaining is still missing the point. Begging and bargaining are just behaviors, the outer representations of an inner emotional state:

Desperation.

Truly, desperation is what comes after anger. That’s what we writers need to focus on. In the same way that anger is merely an outer response to recognizing the unavoidable reality of something you don’t like, begging is just the outer response to an inner emotion of desperation.

Begging is just a stalling tactic. It is the ragged shreds of hope that, somehow, if some higher authority deigns to intervene on your behalf, you might just squeak by and avoid having to face that unavoidable reality after all. Underneath those surface actions, anger yields to a desperate desire not to face the problem. That desire often comes out in the form of begging.

Degrees of desperation

But not always. Of the five stages, I would argue that this one is the most dispensable. In your novels, you can more easily skip this stage than any other. You’ll have to decide whether that’s a good idea, but in my opinion readers are less likely to question your characters if they skip the begging than any other stage.

This is because people have a pretty wide range in terms of how well they handle bad news. Kids don’t handle it well at all. When you say “Come on, Sam, it’s time to go home,” the first thing they do is say “No!” That’s denial. Then they throw a tantrum. Anger. Then they beg for five more minutes, pleeeeze!

People who have learned how to handle responsibility tend to bargain less in the face of bad news. People who have learned the life lessons about the necessity of taking action in order to shape their fate, tend to look at a bad situation and say “ok, that sucks. Now what can I do about it?” People who haven’t learned these things, they beg.

Did you catch the character development lesson there? Bargaining signals desperation, which is a itself a sign of emotional immaturity. It is a sign of someone who isn’t facing the responsibility that is properly theirs.

To show a responsible, mature person, skip the bargaining. Or offer it up in a form that the character doesn’t expect to be taken seriously. Let the character make a joke about it, or express a brief moment of bargaining through a clearly rhetorical question that they don’t expect anyone to take seriously.

For example, put your character in a restaurant. When the bill arrives, let her discover she has left her purse in the car. She could smile sheepishly at the waiter and say “I don’t suppose you’d take an IOU?” Of course he wouldn’t. She knows she’s going to have to endure some social embarrassment in asking someone from the restaurant to escort her to the car to retrieve her purse so they know she won’t run out on the bill. Her own mistake has caused a situation she’d rather avoid, but she’s mature enough to take responsibility for it, and thus she doesn’t beg.

An immature character, on the other hand, might well try hard to talk her way out of the situation. “Oh, you know me! I’m good for it. I come in here all the time. Just let me write you an IOU, I’ll make sure to come here for lunch tomorrow and pay for it then. Come on, please? I’ll give you a really big tip.” Beg, beg, beg. It’s pathetic, desperate, and everyone can see it except the character herself.

Why begging works

Or, I should say, the reason begging works in your novel is exactly because it almost never works for the character. You think the waiter or the restaurant manager is really going to just let the begging lady walk out without paying? Hardly. The reason begging works to show desperation, the reason it’s an effective strategy for showing this emotional state in your characters, is because begging almost never yields the desired result for the beggar.

Nor should it.

Let that sink in. If your character begs for a get-out-of-jail-free card, and you give it to them, you’re succumbing to the deadliest urge a writer can fall prey to: being too kind to your characters. Don’t do it. It destroys the drama of the situation, and, in fact, of the whole book. If you let a character beg their way out of trouble, it tells the reader you’re not serious about letting your character ever face genuine danger. It’s exactly the same as if you let your kids successfully beg for five more minutes of TV before bed. All that tells them is that you’re not really serious about the rules you’re setting for them.

Conclusion. Psychologists call this stage bargaining, but never forget what it’s really about: desperation. The degree of bargaining your characters show is a dead-on clue to the reader about how mature the character is in facing problematic situations. This does two good things for you.

First, it’s prime territory for a character arc. Let your character beg—and fail—early in the book, but grow and mature as the book proceeds until at the end, in a pivotal moment, she doesn’t beg at all but simply gets down to work.

Second, letting your character fail to talk her way out of a bad situation early in the book does wonders for building your credibility with the reader. If they see you resisting that deadly urge to go easy on her—if they see you letting her fail to talk her way out of a speeding ticket, which then leads to her insurance rates going up such that she can’t afford to have her car anymore—then when you get to that big pivotal moment at the book’s climax, they’ll believe that the stakes are real. They’ll believe in the danger the character is facing, because they’ll believe you’re serious about enforcing the consequences.

< Back to part 2: Anger | Forward to part 4: Depression >

March 31, 2010 17:18 UTC

Tags: character, emotion, believability, grief, bargaining, desperation, credibility, responsibility

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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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