Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Anger, Grief and the Characters Who Feel It

I just finished a book in which every page teased out the ramifications of just one event: the protagonist had recently lost a loved one and – yawn – blamed themselves for that person’s death, which subjected them, of course, to heart-wrenching angst, which then – yawn – created a rift between them and other loved ones, and of course with their potential romantic partner. And so on. Yawn, yawn, yawn.

Yes. The entire book was that predictable, as was the oh-so-foreseeable reconciliation process and ending. But while we could legitimately choose any part of that tired plot to bemoan, I only really took issue with one: the employment, and misuse, of grief.
Writers commonly use grief as a tool.

Fiction writers commonly use grief as a catalyst, a motivational tool, or both for their characters. Grief is powerful, and we all feel it during our lives, and so its use is fine as a way to reach your audience, but if you’re a writer who is truly considering using grief, please also consider how often it’s used, and in what ways, or else I guarantee that you’ll turn off the majority of readers to such a degree that they’ll likely pick another book to read.

We all know the stages of grief, and if you don’t, personally, then google it. I’m not going to give you a grief primer here when a plethora of psychologists have written what’s bound to be a far better explanation. What I do want to crack into is one of those stages, anger, because it’s often one of the few action stages in the grieving process (which makes it an ideal impetus for any character, main or not), and understanding, and then employing, that subsection of grieving can provide your novel with a level of authenticity that far exceeds that found in the vast majority of novels today.

The anger that is found within grief is comprised of four elements: the subject (the griever), the emotion/s and the energy it creates, and the object (what was lost). As should be obvious, people can grieve over the loss of anything, from loved ones to possessions to dreams and ideas, and anything – anything! – to which they have formed an attachment, no matter how small.

What should also be obvious is that I mentioned four elements, but listed three. Thus, the final, and arguably most important, element is this: responsibility.

In other words: whose fault is it?

Note – and I mean you need to completely understand this part – in real life, this is often completely irrational, at least for a time, though irrational blaming can certainly persist. More commonly, however, is that the subject shifts blame from one party (or, yes; it can also be an inanimate object) to another, and it is also common to blame several parties at once.

Avoid clichés in writing.
Let me just say this right out: Characters blaming themselves, solely, for any loss of anyone or anything is one of the most overused, trite, clichéd catalysts and motivators in literature today. If you cannot stop yourself from using it, please at least consider spicing it up, perhaps by using self-blame in conjunction with the blame of someone, or something, else.

Well, who does get blamed?

God. The doctor. The sister who didn’t move quickly enough. The friend who didn’t call back. Maybe all of them.

Note – and this is important – that identifying the object/s of the person’s blame is crucial to understanding how your characters work, intellectually as well as emotionally, which leads to a more authentic narration of their lives, and interactions (although you may or may not want your reader to know the real truth, at least at first).

Hey – different levels of disclosure work for different characters, and that disclosure can serve a variety of purposes. Who cares about discovering the source of a flat character’s sorrow? Maybe instead use it to ingrain them into their role, such as a habitual complainer who seems to blame everyone else for all that happens, which means of course he blames himself; or conversely the quiet, sorrowful soul who keeps to herself, but kills her targets with deliberate indifference, and she can do it so coldly because she hates God for ripping her children/spouse/sister/kitty away. And so on.

Back to main characters. Maybe their loss was long ago, and you want your readers to know why this character is so bitter. Maybe it seems, to a casual looker, that they blamed the world, and its cruelties, but really, deep down, they blame their sister, and that makes things complicated for them because that sister is the one who died ten years ago. (See Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” for a great example of a griever’s anger at the deceased. This is powerful, powerful, stuff, sister and brother writers, and hasn’t been too overused so far. And think: just how will you reconcile it?)

And sometimes, and this is complicated (but in a good way from a writer’s perspective), we blame time for softening our grief, because when pictures and pain soften, it feels like a betrayal of our lost loved one. And that is another loss, a new one, and we often blame the original parties again, in a renewed way.

Let me say one final thing. Well, one series of related things anyway.

Grief does not – not ever ever ever – resolve itself in one, no matter how heart-wrenching, sitting. It doesn’t matter how much the listener loves the griever. And no matter how much the griever reveals, no matter how cathartic it feels to reveal their pain, one revelationary sitting does not end the grief. Do not insult me, and anyone who has grieved, by suggesting otherwise. If you do, I promise to throw your book in the trash.

Remember: grieving takes time.
Grieving takes time. Emotions cycle. There might be periods of calm, and grievers might seem to be improving, outwardly, but grief is one of the most powerful, longstanding emotional processes. It lasts years. Decades. A lifetime. It recurs, though a little differently each time.

The short version is this: If you use grief in your writing, make it believable. If you haven’t grieved, or have but didn’t actually pay attention to what was going on, research it before you write about it.

And do you know what? The truth is that the more you know about grief, the less complicated your own grieving will be, and you’ll be a better friend to others who grieve. Side bennies.

In that book I mentioned, wouldn’t it have been provocative – profoundly interesting – if the main character, instead of blaming herself for her loved one’s death, had blamed the school principal?


  1. Wow, well, that struck several chords with me - a whole symphony! Great piece Lauri. :)

  2. You clearly articulated (not a surprise)the principle that grief is work........thank you.

    I enjoyed your analysis!