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How to portray an inspiring leader

Joan of Arc. Napoleon. Susan B. Anthony. Gandhi. Hitler. Winston Churchill. Martin Luther King. Jim Jones. Whatever you may think of these men and women personally or the causes they championed, there is little argument that they all have something in common. All of them were highly effective leaders of their respective causes. That is, people followed them. They all exuded inspirational leadership.

Some novels call out for an inspirational leader, either as a main character or someone the story’s main characters can themselves admire or vilify. If that fits your current work-in-progress—or one you may be thinking about for the future—read on, for there are a couple of key techniques we can learn from history’s successful leaders. Now fasten your seat belts; this article is a long one.

Leaders share their vision.

All effective leaders, whether their aims be good or ill, have a vision for the future. And they share it with their followers. Whatever they’re after, whatever kind of change they want to create in the world, these leaders have a clear vision for it. And their vision is regularly manifested in their speech. They are not shy about sharing that vision with anyone and everyone.

The speech of effective leaders is peppered with leading phrases and future looking language: “I can see a day when …” Or “I imagine …” Or “I believe that in the future, …” And yes, “I have a dream.” These aspirational and inspirational phrases are how effective leaders open people’s minds and imaginations to their visions.

So if you’ve got a character who needs to inspire others to action—who needs to create a following—make liberal use of future-looking language. And try to make it distinctive. “I have a dream” will forever be associated with Martin Luther King. Your novel’s leader character needs his or her own unique phrasing, something that can become as much a part of the character’s identity and description as height or hair color.

Simple, vivid, and emotional

Great leaders also articulate their vision in vivid, colorful terms. They do it through imagery and metaphor, through evocative similes. They don’t do it through statistics and bulleted lists. Gandhi did not go around talking about how India’s Gross Domestic Product would go up if India achieved self-rule and equality for all. No. He talked about fairness, love, equality. He talked about simple, basic concepts that anyone could understand and that resonated with the emotions of his followers. And when he did have to use a statistic, he kept it lively:

When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it—always.

That’s a statistic—"tyranny ultimately fails 100% of the time"—but look at the wonderful language Gandhi used to express that statistic and how he built a small emotional story around it, and one that serves also to reassure his followers: “this movement is hard and sometimes I fear we will never succeed, but this undeniable fact of history always picks me right back up.” He admits to the same doubts that his followers must surely have had, then offers them a compelling reason to have hope. He explicitly commands listeners (note the imperative voice in “Think about it") to ponder what he has said, and to let this undeniable fact of history do the same for them.

So let your leaders talk about fundamentals. Let them talk about their vision in terms of lofty, philosophical, and emotional words like “love,” “truth,” “equality,” “freedom,” “success,” and so forth. Let them convey their visions in terms that are at once simple but vivid, and that connect with their followers’ hearts.

The what/how/why trap

Still, a great vision and vivid emotional language is not enough. Leaders with vision and vivid language may yet fail by falling into the “what/how/why” trap. And my thanks go to Simon Sinek for bringing this to my attention, because it’s brilliant.

Leader falls into the trap by explaining their vision for the future in terms of what they want to do. If pressed, they will give some details of a plan for how to do it. Chances are, no one will think to ask them why they’re doing it in the first place, which is good for them, because they probably haven’t spent much time thinking about it.

Great leaders explain their visions in exactly the opposite way. Great leaders talk almost exclusively about why they do what they do. They talk about their purpose. Their cause. What they believe deep down to their toes. Sinek explains this in marketing terms: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Great leaders speak to that. Gandhi spoke to validate the basic belief that politically repressed Indians were worthy of every bit as much respect, dignity, opportunity, and freedom as any Englishman—even though they weren’t getting it under British rule.

Yet, most people instinctively talk about what, because what is concrete. It’s tangible. It’s obvious. The problem is, talking about what doesn’t motivate people to action. Talking about why does. If your novel’s leader wants any followers, talking about why had better be the first thing out of his or her lips.

It works because people know immediately whether they agree or disagree with a philosophical principle, which is what so many whys boil down to. When Martin Luther King talked about equality among the races, people knew right away whether they agreed with that basic belief, or whether it scared them. Had he jumped right to a concrete change—say, passing Affirmative Action legislation—he’d have met with much more resistance because even among people who agree with the core belief about equality, they might well differ over whether Affirmative Action was a good way to promote it. Let your leader characters stick with the philosophical principles, and leave the pesky concrete details to others.

Let actions demonstrate the why.

In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi walked almost 400 kilometers to the coast so he could make salt from seawater. Under British Rule at the time, you couldn’t just make salt. You had to pay a special tax. Gandhi’s why had to do with freedom and opportunity. Thus, he did not make speeches about how the Indian people desperately needed access to cheaper salt. That wouldn’t have demonstrated freedom and opportunity in vivid terms.

Instead, he simply made salt. He showed that he had the freedom and ability to do so, and thus, that the tax was both unjust and unenforceable. He did not make an appeal to what he felt needed to change ("we must force the British to repeal the salt tax!"). He talked about why, about the fundamental injustice of the tax, something the Indian people readily understood and agreed with. And the people responded. By the time he reached Dundi, on the seashore, some 50,000 people were there to join him in his protest.

Actions speak louder than words. And in “show, don’t tell” parlance, your leader characters will be much more believable if you can find actions for them to take that demonstrate the why behind their visions. What can your leader characters do to demonstrate their vision and exemplify their why?

Followers follow for themselves

Nobody followed Gandhi to the sea, trekking those hundreds of kilometers—on foot, mind you—because their salt shakers were empty. They weren’t hoping Gandhi was going to go into the salt business, selling lower-cost, tax-free salt. No. They did it for themselves. They followed Gandhi all the way to the sea because his words and his actions validated their own beliefs about themselves. They followed because Gandhi shared their personal vision for opportunity in a free India.

The same thing happened in America’s Civil Rights movement. When Martin Luther King went to Washington, D.C. to deliver his famous “I have a dream speech,” a quarter of a million people showed up to listen under the hot summer sun. They didn’t do it for him. They didn’t do it because they thought he’d feel bad if there was only a small crowd. They did it for themselves, because they wanted to be involved in remaking America according to the vision they shared with King for a more equitable society. And I can’t resist borrowing a line from Sinek here:

Notice, Martin Luther King gave the “I have a dream” speech, not the “I have a plan” speech.

He didn’t say what needed to change, but rather, what he believed. And people who shared those beliefs took his cause for their own, and volunteered. So let your leader characters speak to the secret, unvoiced dreams and visions of the people around them. Let your leader characters give their followers an outlet for pursuing their own dreams. Because the truth about leadership is that it’s not about the leader. It’s about the followers, and validating their reasons for following.

Heroes vs. villains.

Of course, the basic visionary and communication skills of effective leaders can be used for good or for evil. There’s a reason Hitler and Jim Jones were in the list at the top of this article. In truth, there’s not much separating the heroes from the villains. In hindsight, we can tell the difference through our judgments about the rightness or wrongness of their visions. But in the moment, at the time the characters in your book are deciding how to lead or whether to follow, hindsight is unavailable, and it can be damned hard to tell a hero from a villain.

This is because on an emotional level, there is no difference to the followers between a heroic and a villainous leader. Both heroic and villainous leaders alike call out to their followers by appealing to the best in them. They invoke the highest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy to inspire their followers towards greatness or towards what they argue is a better and brighter future.

For the heroic leaders, this appeal is genuine and heartfelt. Such leaders themselves believe what they are saying. Villainous leaders, by contrast, appeal to their followers better natures while at the same time arranging for themselves to be the beneficiaries of their followers’ efforts. Cult leaders, politicians, and corporate PR campaigns often do this (make of that what you will).

A picture of leadership

Through all of this, I hope a picture of what effective leaders actually do becomes clear. Great leaders have a vision. They share their vision in vivid, emotional terms. They speak in terms of broad, philosophical fundamentals, not concrete minutia. They focus on why they are passionate for their vision, not on what they think needs to change. And they let their actions demonstrate the truth of their beliefs.

By doing so, they call out to the shared beliefs held by people who ought to be their followers and motivate those people to take up the cause as well. That is how leaders inspire movements, and if you show your leader characters doing those things, readers will have no trouble believing you when an army of followers materializes around that person.

June 15, 2010 00:05 UTC

Tags: character, leadership, vision, actions, show don't tell, believability

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How to break the rules of emotional response

This is part six in a five part series (yes, yes, I know) of detailed explorations into the five stages of grief model of emotional response. If you missed the beginning, Part 1 starts here

There’s this saying in fiction that no rules are absolute. You can break any rule, so long as it works. That’s entirely true. Thus, as a little bonus for anybody who had the patience to read the first five parts of my series on the rules of emotional response, I thought it would be fun to explore some of the effects you can achieve by intentionally violating the reader’s expectations about how characters respond.

Violating Denial

The thing about the five stages of grief is that stage 1, denial, always starts with misfortunes that are by definition surprising. They are unexpected events, ones that are usually unpleasant. If they were expected, they wouldn’t be surprising. They would be things that already fit with the character’s view of the world, and so there would be no need for the five stages at all. No surprise, no denial.

So what do you get when you show an unpleasant surprise but no denial? Generally, one of two things. Or both.

One is gullibility. If a character accepts a misfortune too readily, perhaps the character is just a fool who will take anything at face value. This is the effect—an unintentional effect—I most often see in work from my clients who don’t yet have the hang of portraying the five stages of grief. The dynamic in play is that the writer hasn’t sufficiently separated themselves from their characters. To the writer, the misfortune is no surprise at all: the writer knew it was coming all along, because he planned it. Consequently, he has forgotten to let his characters show the surprise he himself isn’t feeling.

That’s how the mistake comes about, but the reader doesn’t care about any of that. To the reader, the lack of surprise from the character simply comes across as a failure of the character’s intellect.

The other effect you can create by violating denial is trust. Trust, if you think about it, is kind of like gullibility. When the unpleasant surprise is a piece of unwanted information that comes from another character rather than from direct experience, the character may skip denial (or may experience it only very briefly) if he has sufficient trust and respect for the messenger.

This type of denial violation is great for showing trust, because it signals to the reader that the character is voluntarily suppressing his own judgment in favor of a judgment made by someone he accepts as smarter, wiser, better informed, or just generally speaking more authoritative than himself.

Violating Anger

After denial comes anger. If you violate a reader’s expectations by skipping the anger, you’re conveying a mental state in your character of “I accept that the misfortune is real, but I’m not going to flip out about it.” That’s fine, but be aware that in doing so you’re going to force your character to ask why. Two things come to mind, one that is temperamental, one situational.

First, it may simply be that your character’s temperament is a highly rational one. Anger rarely helps address a misfortune. It is nearly always wasted effort, in which case why do it? A character who is so rational as to skip over anger will, however, likely also skip over bargaining and depression as well, in order to get down to the business of overcoming the misfortune.

Second, the situation may not permit the luxury of anger, no matter how strongly the character might be inclined to be angry. Take two soldiers, make them the closest of brothers-in-arms, and put them in an intense firefight. Let one man be shot in plain view of the other. Yet, with bullets flying right and left, the man left standing simply has no time for anger. More than anything else, in that moment he needs to keep his head figuratively, in order to keep it literally. At that moment, he doesn’t have the luxury of getting mad (Hollywood portrayals of battle scenes notwithstanding); he needs to focus.

In particularly intense situations, you can use violations of anger to convey the stakes of the situation itself. But note, this doesn’t mean the anger is negated entirely. Rather, it is deferred. That soldier might not get mad in the heat of battle, but later, once he’s back at camp and things have quieted down, that anger’s going to come out. Skip it then, and you risk damaging the reader’s perceptions of the character on a much deeper level. Skip it then, and you’ll portray him as an emotionally cold fish who didn’t really care about his buddy after all.

Violating Bargaining

Let’s say you’ve had denial and anger, but you want to skip the bargaining. What does that get you? That gets you pride, in its many forms. This is a character whose mental state is “I may be upset about this situation, but I’m not gonna beg!”

Again, the question is why? Why not beg? Is it because the character is too proud to ask for help (all too common for men in our society)? Is it because the character is trying to preserve his dignity, and is willing to forego whatever slim chance of success that begging seems to offer (although you who have read the stage 3 article on begging know it’s a false hope) in order to retain the ability to think of himself in positive terms? Or is it a reflection of some kind of self-assurance, in which the character doesn’t even feel an impulse towards begging because he has the inner confidence that he’ll be able to get through it somehow? In that last case, your character is likely to skip depression as well.

The final reason not to beg, and one I talked about in part 3 of this series, is because bargaining often makes no sense. When a misfortune is not attributable to anyone with whom you could try to negotiate, then again, what’s the point? If a tornado is bearing down on your house, there’s not much point in trying to bargain with it to veer left. Situational misfortunes that are simple bad luck, and not caused by the choices of any other entities in the novel, are ones where you can skip the bargaining with no particular adverse consequences to your character.

Violating Depression

What can you do with a character who doesn’t get depressed about his misfortunes? Quite a lot, actually. Skipping the depression can show many different things.

It can show perspective. Most of the time, if you take a mental step back and look at the larger picture of life and what matters, you’ll see that the misfortunes life throws at us don’t really amount to much. If you come out of a restaurant only to find that your car has been stolen, well, that’s a bummer but does it really matter? Sure, you’ll be inconvenienced while your insurance company investigates and finally cuts you a check, but so what? In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter much.

It can show resilience. A character who rolls with the punches may well go through denial, anger, and bargaining, but having exhausted those won’t let himself get down about the situation. He’ll put on a brave face and carry on. What can get interesting for the writer is the distinction between genuine resilience and putting on an act. Is the character truly resilient, or is he putting on an act for the rest of the world’s benefit while inwardly spiraling down into depression?

Finally, there’s a danger involved with skipping the depression stage. You may inadvertently signal a lack of concern about the consequences the misfortune entails. When a misfortune threatens something of value to the character, or constitutes a significant obstacle between the character and his story goals, failing to show any moments of sadness or doomxiety could signal to the reader that the character doesn’t really care about those goals.

Violating Acceptance

Lastly, how can you violate the acceptance stage to your advantage? Remember, when a character emerges from depression into acceptance, that generally signals a shift in the character’s world-view towards a view that encompasses the misfortune and all of its consequences. So what do you get if you show him being done with depression, and yet not moving into acceptance?

You show resolve. The character is saying to himself “you know what? I’m not going to take that. I refuse to let this situation stand. I refuse to accept this as the way the world has to be!”

This can be enormously powerful as a turning point in a novel. You can subject a character to a serious misfortune, and let him fully experience stages 1 through 4. Let him hit wallow in deep blackness of depression and hit an emotional rock bottom. But from there, don’t just let him shrug his shoulders and accept the misfortune as immutable, as how things are. Let him instead emerge from depression in a fighting mood, ready to un-do whatever horrible thing you dumped on him.


BAD HASHThere’s a lot you can do with violations of the five stages of grief. You can, in fact, create some highly memorable characters. Characters like good old Forrest Gump. Forrest is the perfect example, because he pretty much skips the five stages entirely, and that’s what makes him so memorable.

Being not very smart, he doesn’t really do denial. To him, everyone is more authoritative than he is, so he’s accustomed to taking other people’s word on things. Skip the denial in that fashion, and there’s no particular reason to engage in anger, bargaining, or depression. And even though he chucks the whole five stages right out the window, it’s believable to the audience because for Forrest the whole world doesn’t make much more sense than what people tell him, so there’s nothing really to do except get on with things.

So that’s it. My thanks to everyone who stuck with this long series over the past couple of weeks. Go forth and add emotional realism to your characters’ reactions, but don’t be afraid to break the rules. Like they say, you can break any rule so long as it works. My hope is that I’ve been able to shed some light on just a few of the ways you can both use and abuse the rules.

< Back to part 5: Acceptance | Forward to writing better novels!

April 07, 2010 20:39 UTC

Tags: character, emotion, believability, grief, expectations, breaking the rules, gullibility, trust, stakes, pride, dignity, confidence, perspective, resilience, resolve

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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

Tags: character, emotion, believability, grief, acceptance, doomxiety, Natalie Standiford

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What am I going to do now?

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

"What am I going to do now?"

That’s probably what this guy is thinking. He just got laid off. That’s a big unpleasant surprise. His now-former boss probably endured his transitions through denial, anger, and bargaining (you can just imagine the scene, right?) before escorting him out the front door. And here he sits in the grip of depression. We can relate, right?

Of course we can, because depression is to be expected. It’s a normal part of the human response to bad news. That fellow is stressing out about how he’s going to make his next mortgage payment, how he’s going to put food on the table, how he’s going to manage if someone in his family should have an accident or get sick. His mind is busy exploring all the horrible consequences that seem inevitable now that he’s unemployed.

I’d be depressed too.

The heart of grief

The whole sequence of emotional response to bad news is called “the five stages of grief,” but if there’s any true grief to be had, it’s here in this stage. The prior stages are all about avoidance in one form or another. But now those have passed, and if the bad news was about some genuine form of loss—death of a loved one, loss of a job, of one’s social position, or of anything else a person has an emotional involvement with—then grief is appropriate. That is, grief in the classical sense of “sadness arising from loss.”

If that’s your character’s situation, go ahead and let him wallow in grief for a while. Show him moping around or crying. Show him letting go of activities he once enjoyed, because he has lost the person he enjoyed sharing those activities with. This is all to the good of your novel, because it shows readers the depth of the hurt. It shows, through observable effects on a character’s behavior, the level of emotional involvement the character had with whatever he lost.


But bad news comes in many forms, not just the loss of emotionally significant people and things. When the bad news is something different, classical grief isn’t always appropriate. But people still show signs of depression in these circumstances, it just stems from a different source than grief. It isn’t sadness arising from loss.

Think about the guy on the steps. Maybe he hated his job. Maybe he had zero emotional attachment to it, but what he’s depressed about is that movie of future horrible consequences playing in his head. He isn’t experiencing classical grief. He’s not actually sad that he lost the job he hated. He’s experiencing something else, something English doesn’t quite have a word for. I’m calling it “doomxiety.”

What he’s feeling is a foreboding sense of anxiety over bad consequences he feels are inevitable. His depression stems from the looming descent of those consequences into his life and his family’s life, combined with his inability to see how he’s going to cope.

He’s stuck in an emotional place where, after the previous three avoidance stages have passed, he can now see all the bad that’s coming his way but he cannot yet see how he’s going to cope with it. He may, in fact, believe that there is no possible way to cope effectively. The core of doomxiety is this stuck-ness, this lack of a plan for coping, coupled with an emotional sense that there is no such plan to be found.

He feels trapped and powerless. He feels anxious and doomed, hence “doomxiety.” If you know of a real word that captures all that, please share it down in the comments. I don’t even care if it’s an English word. I’ve been racking my brains to find one (and thanks to @leira_carola for helping), to no avail.

Doomxiety—until somebody comes up with a better word for it—is what you should strive to show the reader in these situations.


Finally, don’t forget to indulge the reader’s voyeuristic glee. Whatever its source—true grief or doomxiety—the depression stage is miserable. The guy on the steps is definitely not having a good time.

Nobody likes feeling depressed, but there’s no denying that readers certainly enjoy reading about other people’s suffering. So, while I don’t think you should go overboard on the suffering (unless you’re writing one of those novels), neither should you short-change it.

Find a nice balance between too much and too little. Too little, and you’ll sabotage the reader’s belief in the character’s suffering. Too much, and the reader might get bored or turned off to the book. But in between lies a sweet-spot where the suffering is both believable to the reader and satisfying to the reader’s inner voyeur. Don’t deny the reader that vicarious pleasure; instead, aim for it.

< Back to part 3: Bargaining | Forward to part 4: Acceptance

April 02, 2010 16:53 UTC

Tags: character, emotion, believability, grief, depression, doomxiety

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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:


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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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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If you only knew the power of denial

Some time ago, I wrote an article on the Five Stages of Grief as a roadmap for helping you portray your characters’ emotional responses more realistically. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to do a series exploring each of those five stages in greater depth. This is part one.

Remember this scene from Empire Strikes Back? Of course you do. It’s only one of the more iconic moments in all of cinema history. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader engage in a pitched light-saber duel. Vader cuts off Luke’s hand, and the wounded Luke crawls out to a precarious perch on the end of a metal gantry. Vader walks out and utters the immortal line “I am your father.” What are the next words out of Luke’s mouth?

“No. That’s not true. That’s impossible!”

They are pure denial. Emotionally, that’s why this scene works. A whole film’s worth of dramatic plot has led up to this one moment at the film’s heart. And in this moment, the success of the film rests on the believability of Luke’s reaction to this news.

And whatever you may think of George Lucas’s later Star Wars films, you have to give him credit here. In this moment, Lucas absolutely nails it. [Addendum: YouTube has this scene here. Enjoy!]


It is the core, instinctive response human beings give when confronted with events, situations, and news they don’t like. Really, anything that counts as an unpleasant surprise—of any kind and any severity—calls for a commensurate show of denial.

Vader goes on to say “Search your feelings. You know it to be true.” And deep down, Luke probably does. But Luke Skywalker’s denial in this scene is so strong it dictates what happens next. Rather than admit what Vader has said, he instead chooses death. He lets go of his tenuous hold on the gantry, plunging into the depths below. He lets go, fully expecting to die, rather than face the truth. And we believe every second of it.

The power of denial

In the scene, Darth Vader waxes on about the power of the dark side, but what we see here is the power of denial to utterly engage the viewer’s belief in the emotional reality of the scene. We believe it because that’s how real people behave, and having spent our lives being and interacting with real people, we all know it.

That’s it in a nutshell. When we give our characters unpleasant surprises, they need to react with denial. Furthermore, the duration and intensity of the denial should be in proportion to the severity of the unpleasant surprise. Big things demand denial, but even little things deserve it too.

For example, if you open the refrigerator to grab some milk for your morning coffee, but you’re unexpectedly out of milk because your spouse got up for a midnight snack and drank it all, that’s an unpleasant surprise. It’s a conflict between expectations and reality. Your immediate reaction is “What? We’re out of milk?” Quite likely you will bend down to take a closer look inside the fridge, just in case the carton got shoved to the back or something. That’s denial.

It’s small and believable denial—it is in proportion to the event—but it’s still denial. Conversely, you wouldn’t run out to the nearest gun store, buy a semi-automatic, and go on a shooting rampage just because you were out of milk. That would be out of proportion and hard to believe without some prior indications that you were mentally unbalanced. Unless you do have a character who is unhinged, keep it in proportion.

So how do you show it in your novels? There are endless ways to show denial, but they boil down to three broad strategies:

Outright rejection of the unpleasant surprise. This is the one Luke Skywalker uses in Empire. It’s a good choice for big events. Find a way for your character to literally reject what she’s seeing, hearing, or experiencing. This may be verbally, as when Luke says “That’s impossible!” It may be through actions, as when Luke lets go of the gantry. The choices are almost limitless, but whatever you choose it needs to be something that conveys the rejection of truth.

Ignore it. This is when a character receives the unpleasant surprise, but then blithely carries on as though nothing at all had happened. This is a good choice when the unpleasant surprise is something that violates accepted norms of social behavior. It’s that impulse to think “if I ignore it, maybe it’ll go away” or “if I ignore it, maybe nobody else will notice it either.” By way of example, I can only tell the following true-life story.

A couple of years ago, I was at the zoo with my kids. We passed through the chimpanzee habitat, where we came upon a cluster of visitors all crowding around one view window. Now, as you may know, chimps groom each other. It’s just one of their social rituals, helping pick bugs out of each other’s fur and so forth. Being tall, I could look over the heads of the crowd to see that in this case one chimp was grooming another’s genitals, and the latter seemed to be quite relaxed and enjoying the attention.

Never have I seen such a strong nothing to see here, move along reaction from the parents around me. My kids were too young to understand why this was funny or embarrassing to anybody (and I was pleased not to have to explain it to them), but the parents of older kids’ parents were in full scale ignore-it denial mode.

Rationalization and justification. This is a different form of denial, in which the character recognizes the problem but denies that it is actually a problem. Classically (and tragically) we see this very often with domestic violence and drug abuse situations. Battered wives blame themselves, rather than the husband. Alcoholics recognize that they drink a lot, but they deny that it’s affecting their lives. Or they justify it by saying that they need to drink in order to cope with the difficulties in their lives.

What’s really going on in these situations is that the person is not in denial about the problem itself, but rather, about the solution. The battered wife may not want to leave the abusive husband, because that means uprooting her whole life and the lives of her children. The alcoholic doesn’t want to give up drinking, because there are genuinely pleasurable aspects to it. The solutions these people are fully aware of are themselves difficult, and thus are scary, and thus cause this form of denial.

Conclusion. Fiction thrives on conflict, which at its heart is about facing characters with problems, misfortunes, tragedies, and all other manner of unpleasant surprises. At its best, fiction succeeds by showing us how characters overcome these events. Yet, too often writers want to go from the problem straight to the solution. They want to jump from the tragedy, straight to the cathartic moment of healing. They want, as it were, to jump straight to the end of the five stages of grief.

You can do that, but it won’t be emotionally believable to the reader. To make it believable you have to show the full five-stage response. And it always starts with denial.

Forward to part 2: Anger >

March 26, 2010 18:57 UTC

Tags: character, emotion, believability, grief, denial

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Villains are heroes too

In the last part of my character revision series I made the case for why all your significant characters should have some kind of arc. That includes your villains.

Look at it from their perspective: The villain is the hero of his or her own story. Take Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction. Alex Forrest didn’t consider herself to be a bad person. She was a person who felt she had been wronged, and wasn’t going to take it lying down.

Just like a heroine, she had a goal in mind: Exact justice on Dan Gallagher (played by Michael Douglas). We’d call it revenge, but to her, it was justice. She had motivation driving her toward that goal, and obstacles to overcome in pursuit of it. So why shouldn’t she get a character arc too?

She should, and here are four good reasons why giving your villain a character arc helps your novel:

Believability and drama A villain who feels like a one-dimensional stereotype isn’t particularly believable. Real people are rarely so simple. If you’re doing a serial-killer thriller, say, but the whole of your villain’s development is contained in the two word phrase “serial-killer,” nobody’s going to put much faith in him as a real person. His actions and motivations will be all too predictable, and consequently, there is no drama.

A believable person is unpredictable. Unpredictability equals threat, which generates fear (both for the book’s hero and for the reader), which increases the whole book’s sense of drama.

Depth If adding one character arc for your hero gives your novel more depth, then surely adding a second arc for the villain will give your novel even greater depth, right? In fact, yes, and that’s really all there is to say about that.

Message and meaning Giving the villain an arc, with its attendant set of credible, carefully considered beliefs and motivations, gives you an opportunity to play with the similarities and differences between your hero and your villain. That, in turn, creates a perfect opportunity to give your book a deeper message and meaning beyond what’s in the plot. Sure, giving your villain any random character arc at all will still help your novel. But why be random when you can be smart?

If you’re clever about what arc you give the villain, you can a wonderful possibility for playing the two arcs off of each other. By relating both the hero’s and villain’s arcs to the same underlying facet of the human condition, you can examine that facet from multiple points of view. You allow the novel to present a nuanced consideration of tolerance or responsibility or suffering or whatever common element you choose.

Take suffering: perhaps both hero and villain are being driven by suffering from a previous emotional wound. But the hero works to overcome it, while the villain allows the suffering to drag him down into the darkness. This technique is great for giving your book a message and showing the complex, not black-and-white but gray nature of the world, without you ever having to point it out to the reader.

In this example, readers are likely to begin the book with a default attitude that suffering is bad. After all, nobody likes to suffer. We try to avoid it if we can. But by showing your hero emerge from suffering as a stronger person, while the villain succumbs to it and is ultimately defeated, you can show a more complex picture: Suffering itself is neither good nor bad, it’s all in how we choose to react to it. The best part is you never have to explain the message to the reader. It’s shown, right there in the two arcs.

Hope Boiled down to the barest essence, a character arc represents hope. It is a signal that some kind of change is coming, and if there can be change, there can be improvement. If your serial-killer villain has a character arc going on, then the reader can have hope that he may change and not, in fact, kill the victim he is presently stalking. A character arc offers the tantalizing possibility of redemption for even the blackest-hearted of villains.

Now, you don’t have to redeem the villain just because you gave him or her an arc. Absolutely not. But take care: If you’re doing it right, the arc will come with a pivotal moment somewhere in the plot, where the villain chooses the redemptive path or the path of condemnation. The serial-killer either chooses not to kill, or gives in to the bloodlust and does the victim in anyway.

Whichever you choose, that pivotal moment for the villain is also a pivotal moment for your book because the villain’s choice must be absolutely believable to the reader. You can’t just write up to that point then flip a coin to see what happens. Everything that has led up to that moment must, in the reader’s hindsight, support the choice the villain makes. Obviously you don’t want to telegraph the choice ahead of time and give away the ending, but the ending must fit what has come before like a glove.

Well, I guess you could flip a coin about it, as long as you’re willing to go back in revision to add support for the result. As novelist Michael Snyder said in an interview on Author Culture:

As a novelist, you want the reader to experience two conflicting yet simultaneous reactions [to your endings]. They should be saying “Wow, I never saw that coming” and “Of course, sure, yeah, it had to work that way, didn’t it?”

December 18, 2009 19:31 UTC

Tags: character, character arc, antagonists, villain, believability, drama, depth, message, hope, redemption

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Why Jane Smokes: What every writer ought to know about habits

We are, all of us, creatures of habit. Our characters should be too. In this article I’m going to expose a technique used by successful writers to create distinctive, lively characters readers can really believe in.

Take a couple of minutes and make a list of your own habits. No need to write it down or anything, just contemplate your habits, both good and bad. Consider personal habits like biting your nails, smoking, or jogging two miles a day; speech patterns like saying “you know” three times in every sentence or beginning all your sentences with “well,” or “so"; habits of dress and grooming like never leaving the house without a tie or without first washing your face; driving habits like speeding, tailgating, or relentlessly coming to a full and complete stop at every stop sign.

I’ve got at least 10 habits that pop readily to mind. And no, I’m not going to tell you what they all are (although starting sentences with “and,” “but,” and “so” is one).

Now do the same for people you know. Your husband or wife, a friend, a co-worker. Do those people have habits that are quintessentially theirs? Ones that define them almost to the point of caricature? I find it hard to imagine the people I know without their habits. My perception of them is strongly colored by their habits, and surely their perceptions of me are similarly colored by mine.

Although we may not think of them in this way, habits are a great tool for showing character in real life. So why not use them in your fiction as well? There are three reasons why you should.

First, habits create believability. You’ve probably heard the general advice to add evocative details to your writing: Weird, idiosyncratic tidbits that seem to come out of nowhere. Habits do the same for our characters, but they do it across the whole span of the book, not just in a given scene. That is, you can’t just show a character nervously biting his nails once and have it be effective. You must show it often enough to cement that in the reader’s image of the character.

A word of caution: take care in choosing what habits to give your characters. Some habits are so strongly associated with underlying psychologies that they have become tired cliches. Try to find habits that are a little more distinctive, yet don’t destroy the underlying motive of believability. You want to find a comfortable space between what is banal and what is downright strange.

Second, habits "show, don’t tell". On the surface, habits can create colorful, believable characters. But you should strive to go deeper by using the habit as a representation of something meaningful about a character. For example, you could have a character who smokes. She’s not a chain smoker, not a true addict, but rather someone who has come to use cigarettes as a form of avoidance. When forced to confront a difficult or uncomfortable situation, she lights up. On the surface, she’s telling herself “I just need to steady my nerves,” but really it’s just a way to avoid dealing with something difficult, if only for a few minutes. If this is how you portray the habit, then it gives you a convenient shorthand for referring to that entire aspect of the character’s psychology through showing, rather than telling. Telling would be this:

Jane paused before knocking on Sean’s door. She knew she had to break up with him, but dreaded the inevitable scene. She decided to put it off for a few minutes by lighting up a cigarette.

Yeah, that makes me yawn too. Showing would be this:

Jane stood before the door to Sean’s apartment. She raised her hand to knock, but then reached into her purse for a Virginia Slim. She took a long drag, and blew the smoke out into the night air. God damn, she thought, why are men so difficult?

With a little effort most underlying psychological motivations can be connected with an appropriate habit, and usually to great effect.

Third, habits set up dramatic reversals. When a habit is a core part of how we perceive a character, we are strongly affected to see the character violate the habit. Violating the habit is powerful because it is a reversal: you’ve led the reader to expect one thing, but have then given them something different. That is, when we’ve seen Jane light up when under stress seven times before, you can really grab our attention in an eighth scene by showing Jane not lighting up.

But you can’t just do it as a meaningless surprise. After all, if she violates the habit, we’re going to wonder why. If you have properly used the habit as shorthand for Jane’s deeper avoidance issues, then the answer is obvious: When we see her not light up we immediately know that she has grown as a character. She has reached a point where, at least in one instance, she doesn’t want to avoid a difficult situation. She’s ready to face it head-on. The reversal is itself powerful, but it is also dramatic because it clearly shows Jane’s grit and determination. And all you have to do is make her put the cigarette down, unlit.

Exploiting habits is a powerful technique for confronting the challenge of creating distinctive, believable characters. But don’t feel like you have to plan these things out ahead of time. Often it is easiest simply to write until you find yourself stuck, asking “how can I show Jane’s determination and growth?” At that point, you can invent a habit for her to break. You must, of course, go back to earlier scenes and add the habit back in, but that’s ok. The power of a well-chosen habit to show character is entirely worth the effort.

August 24, 2009 23:11 UTC

Tags: character, habits, smokes, believability, drama, reversals, distinctive, shorthand, show don't tell

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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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