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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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I disbelieve your lack of disbelief!

Last night I was looking over an old report I’d written for a client. The manuscript in question had several issues that needed to be fixed, but the one that really jumped out at me was about disbelief: the reader’s disbelief, and the hero’s lack of it.

The book was a science-fiction epic. In the early chapters, the hero has a “matrix moment” wherein he learns that basically everything he thought about his world wasn’t true. The writer did this in a dialogue-heavy exposition scene where the character’s wise mentor explains what’s really going on, complete with alien monsters, spaceships, the whole bit.

The scene failed utterly to capture my interest. The conversation went something like this:

Hero: “Mentor! What’s going on here?”

Mentor: Blah blah infodump, aliens, spaceships, blah blah, danger, danger, conspiracy plot.

Hero: “Oh, ok.”

Not only did the scene fail to capture my interest, the scene completely destroyed the book. Why? Because the hero just went right along with it. He didn’t freak out. He didn’t suspect that his mentor had gone utterly mad. In fact, he didn’t express the slightest bit of skepticism at all, not even a “come on, you’re joking, right?” Nothing.

In failing to make use of stage 1 of the five stages of emotional response , the writer failed to make the scene real for the protagonist. The guy didn’t respond like a real human being would have. And in failing to make the scene emotionally real for the hero, the writer failed to make it intellectually real for me.

In other words, the writer made it impossible for me to suspend my disbelief. Game over.

Disbelief, denial, skepticism—these are all facets of the same incredibly important emotional response, that sensation of discomfort we encounter when we’re presented with information or experiences that clash with what we believe to be true. The core human response is to reject the new and cling to what we have inside.

This is as basic as breathing, and it happens in the blink of an eye.

When you confront a character with something that clashes with what they believe, you have to show some expression of disbelief. The greater the clash, the stronger the disbelief response should be. What is critical to realize is that in these moments, the character is a proxy for the reader. The reader knows how he or she would feel in that situation. The reader’s mind immediately fills with potential counter-arguments against the new information.

In that moment, the reader is waiting for the hero to express similar feelings and explore similar objections. That is, they’re waiting for the writer to prove to them that this unbelievable new information is really true, by overcoming the hero’s natural disbelief. Suspension of disbelief comes from first showing, and then overcoming, the character’s disbelief.

Obviously that won’t happen if you skip the character’s disbelief. What will happen instead are three really bad things:

It reflects badly on your characters. In the above example, it made the hero look like a moron. It made him look like the most gullible simpleton, the most clueless rube to ever survive the birthing process. I had to wonder how this guy manages to get himself dressed in the morning, or avoids poking himself in the eye when he eats with a fork.

It reflects badly on you. You leave readers with the unavoidable perception that you, the writer, are so out of touch with how human beings work that you have no business trying to portray humans on the page. You lose every shred of faith the reader might have had in your ability to tell a story with people in it. That being the case, consider switching to stories about robots and other characters who won’t be expected to act like humans. Give lemmings a try. I hear they’re quite gullible. If you don’t know how to write disbelief, I’ll bet you could write one hell of a lemming protagonist.

You lose the reader. Having destroyed the reader’s estimation of your hero, and having destroyed the reader’s faith in you, what’s left? Nothing at all. There’s nothing left that can drag the reader through another couple of hundred pages of utterly unbelievable fiction. At that point, I would gladly trade your book for a free one-dollar lottery ticket. Even at 147-million-to-one odds, I’d have more faith in that lottery ticket to deliver me something good than your book.

Writing compelling portrayals of emotional responses is obviously a lot more complicated than just adding some disbelief, but it’s a great first step. After all, you can’t stand over the reader’s shoulder and force them to turn pages. You need their cooperation. You need their suspension of disbelief, which you only get by overcoming your characters’ disbelief.

January 29, 2010 22:49 UTC

Tags: character, emotions, disbelief, denial, skepticism, emotionally credible, suspension of disbelief

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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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