How to break the rules of emotional response
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
April 02, 2010 16:53 UTC
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?
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.
March 31, 2010 17:18 UTC
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.
March 29, 2010 18:57 UTC
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.
March 26, 2010 18:57 UTC
Top nine character development tips of 2009
If you’d have asked me a year ago whether I’d be doing a “best of” post to cap off my blog, I’d have said “What blog?”
What a difference a year makes. Without further ado, here are my top nine character development tips from the past year. Enjoy, and raise a glass to 2010. May all your characters come to life, and your books to unimagined success!
*9. Do you know the right way to use backstory?* Because a lot of writers don’t. It’s easy to get seduced by your excitement over the characters you’ve created, and in your zeal to share with the reader, dump a lot of plodding backstory into the novel in ways that kill the pacing and the intrigue. This article talks about using backstory to support and build your novel’s mysteries.
*8. Drive a stake through your character’s heart.* If you’re writing a vampire novel, you may or may not want to take that literally. In this article, I don’t mean it literally, but rather, I show a technique for raising the stakes in your novel by challenging a character’s assumptions about who they are: an identity crisis may suck in real life, but it can do wonders to elevate a novel.
*7. Do you know an inner character arc from an outer one?* The typical outer character arc is all about characters changing and growing by learning from the events of a novel. But there’s another kind of character arc, the inner kind, which stems from resolving differences in the perceptions that characters have about each other.
*6. Do your characters’ flaws work on more than one level?* The tragically flawed hero or heroine is a workhorse element of much fiction. As readers, we like to see characters who aren’t too perfect, because we can empathize with them better. But as a writer, are you taking advantage of your characters’ flaws to enhance the drama in your plot as well?
*5. Don’t forget to revise your characters too* After National Novel Writing Month wrapped up, I wrote about a series of techniques you can apply while revising your novel to strengthen your characters. This series covers everything from speech patterns and mannerisms to deep issues of motivation and goals. Characters are the soul of fiction, so it pays to make them as vivid and lifelike as you can.
*4. Do you know the real reason not to use passive voice?* Most of us have our first, formative writing experiences in school, where we learn to use the passive voice to put the emphasis on the facts we’re conveying rather than on ourselves. But when we begin to write fiction, passive voice becomes the kiss of death. Not because it hides the author from the reader, but because it hides your characters from the reader.
*3. Are your characters falling through gaps in your writing?* Nearly everything in a novel reflects in some way on the characters. In this article, I show how characters can be damaged quite unintentionally by the gaps between scenes and chapters in a novel, and teach you how to build bridges over those gaps for your characters to cross.
*2. Hook ‘em with character* Every novel needs a good hook. You have to grab the reader’s attention and get them interested in what happens next. Plot-oriented hooks can be quite effective, but they’re not the whole story. Character-oriented hooks are quite powerful as well. In this article, I explain how a great hook shows character through conflict.
*1. The five stages of grief* Number one for the year is this article about the five stages of grief model of emotional response. Nothing makes a character come across as wooden and unbelievable faster than when their emotional responses aren’t believable, and nothing kills a novel faster than when this happens at a moment of high drama. You can fix both by getting the emotions right, and in this article I show a template for creating believable, compelling emotional responses for the most dramatic moments in a novel: when bad things happen.
Happy new year, and I’ll see you all in 2010.
December 29, 2009 17:15 UTC
The five stages of grief
There’s nothing worse than a book where the characters simply don’t act like real people. I’m not talking about action books where ninja-like characters with finely honed skills fly from building-top to building-top as casually as if they were stepping out to pick up the morning paper. What I’m talking about are books where the characters do not act in emotionally credible ways.
We’ve all seen this. The classic example (which is one reason why I titled this article “The Five Stages of Grief") is when a one character dies and a surviving character fails to grieve appropriately. Obviously, the level of grief that is appropriate will vary depending on the relationship the writer has created between those two characters. But all too often writers simply omit entirely any kind of natural and expected emotional response.
Emotional credibility is key to creating believable characters.
It’s not just about grief, although grief is an obvious and dramatic case. You have to do this everywhere. In every situation in your whole novel, your characters must display credible emotional responses, or the whole book is going to fall flat.
Most of us are familiar with the psychological concept of “The Five Stages of Grief.” It is a pattern, a predictable sequence, of emotional responses that normal human beings go through when confronted with tragedy. The other reason I titled this article “The Five Stages of Grief” (and yes, I’m going to repeat that phrase a lot, because you need to learn it) is because those stages are a road map for producing emotional credibility in your scenes, and thus, creating believable characters.
So what are the Five Stages of Grief? Whole books have been written to answer that question, but briefly:
Denial: Simple, literal disbelief that the tragedy, whatever it is, is real. Denial is disbelief even in the face of hard evidence. Nobody wants to have a tragedy happen to them or to a loved one, so the immediate emotional response is simply to deny it. This isn’t rational, but it’s what normal human beings do.
Anger: After getting past denial, once a person confronts the ugly fact that the tragedy is real, comes anger. Simple ire and rage that this tragedy should have happened at all, or often, that it has happened to them personally.
Bargaining: Once the anger passes, bargaining is the natural inclination to try to strike a deal with whatever authority figure is relevant to the tragedy, be it God, a physician, a policeman, an insurance adjuster, whoever. After anger, people will try to negotiate their way out of the tragedy in one way or another. This, I must add, should almost always prove to be a futile exercise.
Depression: Denial didn’t work; the tragedy didn’t go away by ignoring it. Anger didn’t work; the tragedy can’t be scared off. Bargaining was a flop; what’s done is done. With all strategies for un-doing the tragedy exhausted, the natural response is to be sad about it. This can range from being mildly bummed out to full-blown clinical depression, but this is what comes next.
Acceptance: Finally, when all is said and done, a person moves to acceptance. The person comes to a place where they may not be happy about the tragedy, but they’ve accepted the immutable reality of it and have decided to move on with their lives. This is when the person starts to act again, to really live again, by making the best of their situation.
That’s your road map. Whenever your characters are faced with tragedy, we’d better see them exhibit those emotional responses, or we’re going to have an awfully hard time believing in them as real people.
I wish this psychological road map wasn’t labeled with the word “grief,” because that implies that the road map only applies when characters face truly dire, truly tragic situations. Although I’ve used the word “tragedy” in the above descriptions, the truth is that the five stages apply to all kinds of tragedies, large or small. Although this model of emotional response originated through studies of people faced with terminal illness and other truly life-changing situations, where serious grief is in play, the road map applies everwhere.
As writers, we need to learn to generalize this framework. Call it “The Five Stages of Misfortune” if it helps, but understand that this model applies at all scales. On a grand scale, you could write a five-book epic about a character learning to come to terms with a true tragedy, devoting a whole book to that person’s processing of each stage. On a small scale, the whole five-stage drama can flash by in a couple of paragraphs, for calamities that are much less consequential to the character’s life.
Depending on the situation, you have a lot of leeway with the five stages. The stages don’t always come strictly one after the other. They often overlap. Sometimes you can skip a stage. But by and large, we should see hints of all five as the ripples that spread from each misfortune you subject your characters to.
Let’s take a quick example of how, even in a very short scene or very brief moment from a story, you can convey all five stages. Watch how it lends emotional credibility to the scene, and how you find yourself empathizing with the character. Let us set this scene in a Chicago tenement house, in the early years of the 20th century, in a small, dark, drafty, and dirty apartment on the fourth floor. In this scene, a young husband nervously awaits the birth of his first child, pacing outside the bedroom where the midwife is practicing her craft.
“Gregor!” the midwife yelled from the bedroom. “I need towels. Clean ones!”
“Yes, alright,” Gregor called back. He rushed down the apartment’s narrow hallway to the linen cupboard. He flung open the doors. There were no towels.
No, we can’t be out of towels now! He shoved aside rags and bars of soap, peering into dark corners, finding nothing.
“Damn and blast,” Gregor swore under his breath. He dashed to the apartment’s small bathroom. Perhaps there were some in the laundry basket that had yet to be put away. Please, God, let there be some. Pulling a wrinkled work shirt out of the basket, he held it quickly to his nose. It stank of sweat and of the slaughterhouse. He threw the shirt back; if there were any towels buried under his dirty laundry, they were far from clean.
“Gregor!” the midwife called again.
“I’m looking!” he shouted back. If my child dies for want of a towel— Gregor shoved the thought aside and dashed out again towards the front door. He was across the hall in an instant, pounding furiously on the neighbors’ door. “Anna, Peter, I need towels!”
It’s not a long scene, but we see all five stages. Note, too, that the tragedy is very simple: no towels. It’s very minor on the grand scheme of things, but it still demands a credible emotional response from the character, because for him the stakes are high. As far as he knows, his child’s life may depend on his ability to provide clean towels. If less was at stake—say, if the baby had already been born and the midwife only wanted towels so she could clean up the mess—Gregor’s reactions would be commensurately smaller.
Gregor’s short bit of inner monologue after opening the linen cupboard reflects denial, that brief feeling of “What? How can we be out of towels now, of all times?” He mutters a brief curse, betraying his anger and frustration at the situation. He thinks of an alternative, one he knows to be a long shot and bargains with God to let there be clean towels in the laundry basket. Of course, there aren’t. All his immediate strategies for making this no-towels tragedy go away have failed, pushing him into a moment of depression as he briefly contemplates what’s at stake, implying to himself and to the reader how sad the situation might turn out to be. But there’s no time to dwell on what might happen. No, Gregor must act. In noveling terms, he must drive the scene. He accepts the situation, and makes the best of it by banging on the neighbors’ door for help.
As you write, and especially as you edit, I want you to consider the dramatic moments in your story. Consider the times when you let something bad—be it big or small—happen to your characters, and ask yourself whether you have shown credible emotional responses in every case.
Remember, every story moves forward through characters overcoming obstacles, and on some level every obstacle is an instance of something bad happening to the character. Every single one is an opportunity to show your characters’ personalities, by giving them appropriate five-stage emotional responses to those obstacles.
August 07, 2009 22:07 UTC
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