Anger: 5 Shades Of Seeing Red

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.

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.

Click here to read about the 12 most common types of anger.

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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  1. says

    I think for most of us, the default setting is to write anger in our characters the same way we express anger ourselves. Remembering that our way isn’t the only way can make a huge difference in differentiating our characters. Nice post :)
    Marcy Kennedy recently posted…The Missing Hunger Games Line

    • says

      Typically I just go silent when I’m angry, unless I’m spitting mad. But only my brother can make me so mad that I start screaming and really lose control. I think we’re all capable of every facet of anger – that’s an aspect of fiction I love exploring.

    • says

      Yes, that kind of liberating anger is awesome. It’s a lot harder to dig into the why with my character’s anger, but I think it makes the story richer and gives better dimension.

  2. says

    I struggled against anger for much of my early life; it burns white hot, blinding, fierce, destructive, leaving you hollow and empty afterwards. I can give that to my characters, but I prefer to find another way to have my needs met in real life.
    Great post, thought provoking.
    Prudence MacLeod recently posted…Return of the Witch

    • says

      Thanks for stopping by. What I love about writing fiction, is that I can put my characters into similar situations I’ve been in and have them react the way I wish I had reacted. lol

  3. says

    You are so right on here, Lisa! Anger is an important part of who we are. And… part of our stories if we want them to have any conflict and interest. No “blah” please. Determining how each of our characters deals with anger is the key. Thank you for this thought provoking post.
    Debra Kristi recently posted…Hit by the Lucky 7! BAM!

  4. says

    Great post, Lisa.

    I’m a flash and flare then it’s finished type of person, although never about small stuff. I never hold a grudge because it’s self destructive to keep anger simmering on the back burner.

    My grandmother once told me to never go to sleep on argument/discussion with my OH and we’ve stuck to that rule. It definitely works for us.

    My last completed ms deals with a bereaved woman who’s anger with God/fate/the universe makes it difficult for her to move onto acceptance as she grieves. She becomes physically unwell and it takes a man’s courageous unconditional love for her to help her move into a bright future. Not my usual style, but the characters had been nibbling away at me for three years. It took that long for me to develop the skills to do the story justice (I hope!)

    • says

      Sounds like a story that needs to be told. The ones that nag at us and won’t let go can be the most difficult to write IMO.

    • says

      You know – this was a big deal when I first learned about this many shades of anger thing. All it once it made writing about anger easier – and harder. I use a lot of internal dialogue, so figuring this out helped tremendously.
      I find I study a lot of psychology in order to improve my craft.

  5. says

    Oh yes, I make my characters angry. And sometimes the situation turns not pretty. But sometimes the anger is short-lived. I love how you described anger as a secondary emotion: “Anger has many shades. To get black, you mix all the primary colors together.”

  6. says

    Hi Lisa! Loved your post. You’ve definitely given me food for thought when I write about anger. Thanks so much. Awesome!

  7. says

    Wonderful post Lisa! I just found out how lazy I am. LOL! I knew it, but I didn’t want to face it. And I love how you explained the different colors of anger and that it is indeed a secondary emotion. What insight! What are the physiological symptoms of keeping everything inside? I thought Jenny’s comment about how it stems from hurt and fear went right along with your question. Wow I appreciated this post Lisa. Thank you! :)
    Karen McFarland recently posted…Guest Post by Bob Mayer

  8. says

    Great post, Lisa. I’ll definately have to read an angry scene with thought. I love the insightful responses. It’s a good point that we tend to have our characters react the way we would.

    Expressing my anger has always been scary for me since my mom and step dad fight a lot and in a pretty nasty style. I thought that I was a really calm person until I had kids. How wrong I was 😛 They’re the best patience practice.
    Reetta Raitanen recently posted…Let The Music Carry You Away

  9. says

    You’re spot on here, Lisa. Portraying anger authentically gives a story life and depth, bringing readers through the emotions and into the action.

    And please, no stereotypes! They make my blood boil 😉 (Cliches are apparently fine.)
    Diana Dart recently posted…For the Win and Follow Me


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