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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.

Conclusion

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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