Anger is a fabulous emotion to give your characters, but it’s not a simple emotion. There are many shades of seeing Red. Everyone gets angry, we get irritated, ticked off, peeved, angry, and enraged – but how much do you know about this emotion?
Anger is one of those universal emotions that it should be impossible to write a novel and not include in some form or other. Anger motivates, intimidates, inspires change, fights back, breaks hearts, and it can mend things. But, because it’s universal, writers don’t think they need to learn more about it. Everyone’s experienced anger, many kinds of anger – but that makes the writer’s job more difficult because if it’s not done well, if you don’t dig deep to keep it authentic, every reader will know it.
Avoid naming an emotion
First, I see this a lot – I did this a lot. Avoid the pit-fall called telling (as opposed to showing) by not naming emotions.
He replied angrily.
She was having a fit of rage.
These examples have other issues beyond telling, but these are lazy. Avoid lazy writing. Show readers what the characters are doing, their gestures, facial expressions, what they’re thinking, and feeling. It’s definitely more challenging to write this way, but it’s more satisfying for the reader. To learn more about Showing vs Telling, check out my post at Girls With Pens. (I hope to have my articles from GWP archived here soon.)
But now you have a problem. If you can’t say a character is mad, angry, cheesed, PO’d – whatever, what are you supposed to do? You can only clench a jaw, make a fist, make their heart race, swear so often.
Anger is a secondary emotion – a result of one or more other emotions. Know why your character is angry to give readers insight into your character. Anger has many shades. To get black, you mix all the primary colors together.
Scenario: A mom has told her two children to stay together and come home straight after school. They are to be home by 4PM. They’re late. After driving the agreed upon route 3 times, she goes to the school looking for them. The teachers haven’t seen them since dismissal. All that’s running through her mind is the headlines from two months previous – a little girl the same age as her daughter abducted from the school yard in a nearby community.
When the school custodian marches the two kids into the school office, she starts crying and can’t stop. They’ve been digging in the lost and found for half an hour looking for a misplaced sweater she’s been after her son to find. She starts crying and rushes them out to the van, and lectures them all the way home. She calls her husband to intercept him from leaving work, and starts shouting. It’s not her fault they were late. It’s not her fault she couldn’t find them. It turns into a full blown argument.
She’s not upset with her husband, but she can’t lash out at her kids. What emotions has she gone through: anxiety, panic, relief, fear, joy, embarrassment. See how the anger generated by this situation is made up of the shades of other emotions? Depending on the root emotion for the anger, the character’s reaction and the length of the reaction will be different.
People express anger differently
Everyone expresses their anger differently. A friend’s husband laughs when they’re fighting – how irritating would that be? Some people lash out physically when they’re angry – and yes abusers, but what about slamming doors or throwing dishes into a sink? What about those people who dredge up every little thing you’ve ever done wrong when they’re upset? Some people lash out verbally by yelling, turning to sarcasm, or shame. Others just go silent. How your character reacts will be determined by their personality – in part.
People get mad at themselves
Ever berated yourself for something? I’m so stupid – I can’t believe I did that. What was I thinking? It’s all my fault. What does internalizing this conflict do to a person? What are the physiological symptoms of keeping everything inside? This can be very dangerous – think about the abused spouse or child. What happens when they can’t keep it in any longer? What about those who castigate themselves in error? There’s lots to explore here, but it’s also easy to slip into overdone stereotypes.
Anger can be liberating
Letting loose can feel really good. You finally got that something something off your chest. You’ve stood up for yourself. You faced the injustice, answered the wrong. You’re not just spouting off, you’re looking for change. This stops right here, right now. This is your line in the sand. …And (wink, wink) how did you make up afterwards?
Ever been there? How did it feel? Was there a moment of regret, hesitation? You weren’t sure you could go through with it, but afterwards… Was it worth it? Dig really deep for this emotion. It’s easier, for me, to write a knock down drag out fight than authentically capture the internal conflict this kind of anger should bring. That battle between righteous indignation and relief is hard to portray well.
People hide behind their anger
Victims of abuse hide behind the anger at their abusers, at life. People use anger to deflect from the real issue – it’s that moment when someone blows up at you for no reason and you’re left saying, ‘What just happened here?’ Abusers hide their insecurity behind anger. The trick staying true to the character, but giving readers hints about what’s really going on.
Do you struggle to write anger authentically? What do you struggle with? Read a really authentic scene ripe with anger? Tell us about it.
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