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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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Who is the Robin to your novel's Batman?

Ah, sidekicks. Those indispensable minor characters who, if you do them right, can add life to a book or even threaten to steal the show. Sidekicks come in two basic forms: new friends and old friends. Each has different applications in story-craft.

Make new friends

Sidekicks are often new acquaintances for your main character. There is a lot to be said for these new friends. They give you many wonderful opportunities for showing your readers what your main character is all about. New friends can act as stand-ins for your reader. They learn about your protagonist at the same time your readers do. New friends also create opportunities for mystery and drama.

New friends mean new relationships. When a relationship starts, platonic or otherwise, both parties must share of themselves in order to build trust with the other. What they choose to share and how they share it speaks volumes. Is your main character warm and open with this new friend, inviting and generous with his or her time and attention? Or is your main character stand-offish, closed and guarded, seeming always to give the new sidekick the brush-off as quickly as possible? These types of personality traits, ones that have to do with how people treat one another, can be shown very clearly in watching a character develop a relationship with a new sidekick.

New friends are clueless. I don’t mean they’re stupid (and I hope they’re not), they’re simply not up to speed on your main character’s life. The sidekick hasn’t yet learned what the protagonist can do, what he knows, what he has been through, what practical and political realities matter to the protagonist’s life. This is wonderful, because it gives you natural opportunities to explain things to the reader while the protagonist is explaining it to the sidekick, without resorting to an infodump. If the reader truly needs to know that the bridge leading into town was built by a sleazy, lowball contractor, chances are the sidekick does too. And if the sidekick is a new friend from out of town, the protagonist has every reason in the world to explain it. It feels natural because, in that situation, it is.

But, as unknown as the new friend is to the protagonist, the reverse is also true. The protagonist starts out clueless about the sidekick. The sidekick must work to earn the protagonist’s trust and the reader’s trust as well. This gives you the delicious opportunity to create some drama and mystery, if that’s appropriate for your story, as the protagonist wonders whether the sidekick is on the up-and-up.

Especially in mysteries crime dramas, and other such mainstream genres, dangling the tantalizing possibility that a trusted sidekick might really be a spy, a mole, or a back-stabber can really ratchet up the drama in the book. In this situation, it is the protagonist who is the stand-in for the reader. That’s half the fun of reading an engaging novel, taking turns putting yourself into the shoes of different characters.

But keep the old

Old friends, sidekicks who are presumed to be well acquainted with the protagonist when the book starts, are tremendously useful but give you different options and challenges.

Old friends already have a rapport with your protagonist. They’ve been pals for a long time, so readers will naturally expect your protagonist to behave more openly and honestly with this type of sidekick. How your protagonist acts around his old friend—and how he interacts with that old friend—indicates his true personality. But be warned: it isn’t always easy to portray a well-established friendship because you, the writer, haven’t lived that particular relationship yourself. You have to invent and stay true to the myriad in-jokes and verbal shortcuts that old friends have with each other. Either that, or borrow these markers of deep friendship from your own life.

Old friends are also a smooth vehicle for revealing your protagonist’s backstory, because the old friend already knows it and can refer to it. Your old friends already know all your dirty laundry. Not only have they already seen the skeletons in your closet, they probably know how those bones got there. This means that in times when your protagonist is wrestling with a choice or trying to figure out how to proceed, the old friend can quite naturally bring up some relevant fact from the protagonist’s background. You can show this fact to the reader in the course of reminding the protagonist about it. Take care not to go overboard—the old friend will merely refer to this fact, he won’t recount the story in full detail. After all, the protagonist has his own memory of it. You need to keep the dialogue short and to the point; make it revealing without being overly explicit.

There is a danger with old friends, though: readers don’t know about them until you introduce them to the story. If you introduce a supposed old friend late in the story at a point where that friend’s influence or connections or resources are suddenly of critical importance to your protagonist, but the reader has never heard of this person before, it falls flat. It feels like a deus ex machina solution to a plot problem, rather than a character naturally calling on his network of friends and acquaintances in time of need.

Old friends can present a problem for writers, because on the one hand people do have old friends who they are very close to, but who they may only see on rare occasions. Never the less, these old friends still have strong connections to us through our past. The same is presumably true for any protagonist who is old enough to have a past.

For example, if I needed a piece of legal advice I could call up my friend Mike from High School, who I haven’t seen in quite some time. He’d probably take my call and help me out. But if an observer in the story of my life had no idea Mike existed, this would be a surprising and too-convenient thing for me to do. The observer—and your reader—will be much less surprised and much more likely to believe this had Mike been introduced earlier in the story.

It’s a fine line between introducing the friend early and often enough so as to be believable when the need for that friend’s help arises, while not giving that friend so much screen time throughout the story that you telegraph the friend’s ultimate importance. You have to be believable, without undermining the drama.

One is silver, and the other gold

The eyes may be the window to the soul, but relationships can be a big bay window to the personality. Use sidekicks, whether new friends or old, and the relationships they have to your protagonists to show readers what makes your protagonists tick.

March 05, 2010 20:03 UTC

Tags: character, sidekicks, relationships, trust, backstory, infodumps, batman, robin

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