Everybody gets angry. Whether you’re irritated or enraged, it’s not a simple emotion. Stephen King says fiction is truth inside a lie. We must have characters react honestly and authentically, but how much do you know about getting angry?
Anger is a universal emotions. It’s impossible to write a novel and not include anger some form or other. Anger motivates, intimidates, inspires change, fights back, breaks hearts, and 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 you cheated.
Avoid Naming Anger
Avoid the pit-fall called telling (as opposed to showing) by not naming anger.
He replied angrily.
She was having a fit of rage.
These are lazy. Don’t be lazy! Show readers what angry looks like: their gestures, facial expressions, body posture, actions, etc. It’s definitely more challenging to write this way, but it’s more satisfying for the reader.
Anger Is A Reaction
Anger is a secondary emotion, the reaction or consequence of one or more other emotions. Know why your character is angry.
Scenario: A mom has told her two children to stay together and come home straight after school. They’re late. She’s frustrated they didn’t listen to her. Mom goes to the school looking for them. The teachers haven’t seen them. Now she’s worried. Where could they be? The school calls for them over the PA system. We’ll have a look around the office staff say. Mom runs home again to see if she missed them. Returns to school. Now she’s panicking.
When the school custodian marches the two kids into the school office, she can’t keep the emotion from her voice because of the relief of finding them safe. 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 leaves and with a raised voice lectures them all the way home.
She calls her husband to tell him the kids are safe. They start arguing. 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 — because the reaction of all those intense emotions running through her is anger.
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? By showing the readers each emotion as Mom experiences it, her anger is easier to follow and understand.
Depending on the intensity of the root emotion for the anger, the character’s reaction and the length of the reaction will be different.
Anger Looks Different For Different People
When my grandmother was angry, she’d stamp her foot. She rarely raised her voice, but she’d stamp her foot and say, “Now I’m getting cross.” That’s when you knew you were in serious trouble and you wouldn’t be talking your way out of it. Some people lash out physically when they’re angry – and yes abusers, but what about slamming doors or books shut, throwing dishes into a sink? Cleaning like a mad fool? Some people lash out verbally by yelling, turning to sarcasm, or shame. Others just go silent. Have some fun exploring this with your characters.
Anger Is Often Directed At Someone Or Something
When you can’t get angry at the person who made you mad, you direct that reaction elsewhere. Like the mom in the above example who ended up lashing out at her husband instead of her children. Sometimes we berate ourselves: 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? There’s lots to explore here, but it’s also easy to slip into overdone stereotypes.
Anger Can Heal
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? It’s important to capture the internal conflict authentically in this situation.
Have you swallowed a comeback to a snarky remark? Been redressed publicly by a boss and said nothing? You marched back to your office and slammed a few folders around, texted your spouse – whatever. There are consequences to squelching anger, to denying yourself the release and vindication of this emotion. Sometimes you suppress your anger because your reaction is inappropriate. The infant that won’t stop screaming despite the fact that you’re dead tired is an example. Sometimes reaction publicly isn’t appropriate and you have to wait until you’re alone with a person. Sometimes you need time to process your emotions so you don’t lash out in blind anger.
This will look and feel different to the character than the examples above, because this is a conscious choice. You’ll need to use internal dialogue or even dialogue to show the reader what’s really going on — show the internal conflict of denying the anger.
Have you ever thought of anger as a secondary emotion? Do you struggle to write anger authentically? What do you struggle with?