Monday, May 19, 2014

The Psychology of Writing: Character Development and the 5 Stages of Grief

Characters need to be real to your readers. They need to live, breathe, laugh, cry, fall in love, embarrass themselves, and connect with your audience.

When they endure pain, loss, and trauma, it is important to let them grieve. It’s a powerful part of the healing process and it’s one of the most effective ways to connect with your audience. That’s because grief is something that all humans experience. Regardless of the cause behind the grief that your character is suffering, the audience will tap into it and make it their own. Grief, like fear, is a universal emotion that nearly everyone has felt at some point in their lives. This makes it a powerful tool for creating common ground between your characters and your audience.

In today’s article, I’ll be taking a look at the 5 Stages of Grief as outlined by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. I’ll begin with a brief look at common misconceptions about the stages of grief, each step of the grieving process, and lastly some examples of the grieving process in media, looking specifically at cases from The Bridge to Terabithia, Kingdom Hearts, Spiderman, and Naruto. There will be spoilers in these final sections for each respective series, so be wary of that and read with caution.
Common Misconceptions about the 5 Stages of Grief
Before we begin looking at the five stages of grief, let’s briefly discuss some misconceptions surrounding these stages.

1. It is not necessary to go through the stages of grief in order to heal. While most individuals (and characters) will go through at least some part of the grieving process, there will be some cases in which characters skip most stages of grieving entirely. These characters are still capable of healing from the trauma over time. The idea that an individual must go through every stage of grief in order to be fully healed is not true. The healing process is as unique as the individuals that go through it. For each individual is a unique healing process. Much will depend upon personality, strengths, weaknesses, beliefs, constitution, attitudes, and values.

2. It is not necessary to experience all five stages of grief. Sometimes characters will go through all five stages, but it is just as common for a character to only go through three or four.

3. The stages of grief do not occur in any particular order. Although the stages are listed in the order of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, the grieving process rarely follows this exact pattern. As you’ll see from the examples in this article, the order can be quite varied. It is also not unusual to go through a specific step more than once. For some characters, grief is a line—proceeding from one step to the next, before finally reaching acceptance. But for a majority of characters, grief is a cycle that doesn’t end so easily. For example, even after an individual has achieved “acceptance,” they may revert back to anger or bargaining, only to eventually return to acceptance again.

4. This model is not just for characters facing their own impending deaths. The 5 Stages of Grief model works for any trauma a character may be facing. It could be that the character has a terminal illness, but it could just as well be another distressing incident—the death of a loved one, the loss of a dream, a divorce or breakup, facing a horrible realization or truth, or trying to overcome a crippling addiction.

Now that we’ve cleared up some misconceptions about the grieving process, let’s look at the actual stages.

1. Denial
Some psychologists call this the “denial/isolation” phase. This step is listed first because it is often the first one that occurs chronologically, even though the order of the remaining steps often varies.

In the denial phase, characters do exactly that—deny what is happening to them. If a character is facing terminal cancer, for example, they will choose not to believe such a thing is happening to them. If someone close to the character dies, the character may act unaffected and suspend the belief that their loved one is really gone.

Isolation is a large part of denial. Characters may choose to avoid discussing topics related to their grieving, and they will deliberately distance themselves from anything that reminds them of their present trauma.

In the denial phase, the characters are enduring severe shock. To protect themselves from the awful reality, they create barriers in their minds to fend off the truth. These barriers often take the form of denial—denial that the incident ever occurred. Those around the character during this phase may perceive him/her to be “out-of-it,” “emotionally numb,” or even “apathetic.”

2. Anger
Anger is a natural response to pain. When characters feel wronged, they are naturally going to feel angry. When going through a trauma, characters are likely to feel that they don’t deserve it. They may ask “Why me?” or “Why am I the one being punished?” When they discover no logical answer, anger often follows.

In this phase, characters may become wroth with themselves, with others, with their god or religion, or even with their deceased loved one (if they are grieving their death). It’s not uncommon for characters to feel that their deity has abandoned them, that their loved one deserted them through death, or that they themselves just didn’t do enough.

Anger can manifest itself in many ways—lashing out at others, quick-temperedness, rebellion, yelling, acting cross, striking or destroying inanimate objects (also called displacement), or just generally being tense (clenched fists/jaw, rigid posture, speaking curtly, etc.).

If you are writing your story from the POV of a specific character, they are likely to think angry and upsetting thoughts during this phase. Their anger, like a fire, will leap from object to object in their mind, until they go from being angry at one person/thing to being angry at the entire world around them. They may feel misunderstood, or that they are the only one who is truly suffering (and that others around them are only fooling themselves). This only adds fuel to their anger.

3. Bargaining
In the bargaining phase, characters attempt to “make a deal” with a deity, religion, fate, or person of high importance in their life in order to gain something favorable to their situation. The classic example is the individual who, having a terminal illness, tells God that he/she will give up drinking, smoking, cursing, or start going to church, or give all of their money to charity (or some other promise), in exchange for extended life or healing.

While this is the most traditional form of bargaining, it can come in many shapes in sizes. If a character is facing a divorce or breakup, their form of bargaining may sound something like: “Give me another chance! I promise I’ll do better!”

In its most simplistic form, bargaining is simply asking “What if…” and saying “If only…” It occurs when a character is “stuck” in the middle of their trauma. They replay it over and over in their minds, thinking of things they could have done to fix or avoid the current situation. Rather than being angry at others, they begin to shift the blame to themselves. A myriad of hypothetical questions and alternative scenarios occupy the individual’s mind as a result.

“If only I had gone to the doctor sooner.”
“If only I had never said those things.”
“What if I had listened to God’s calling?”
“What if I had never moved to this new city?”

And so on.

4. Depression
In phase four, exhaustion and reality at last begin to sink in. The individual realizes that the traumatic incident really has happened and that there is nothing they can do to change it. As a result, classic symptoms of depression occur, which can last for a few days (acute depression) or several weeks (clinical depression). In this phase, the character may tend to seek therapeutic help or counseling, particularly if the depression lasts longer than a couple weeks. Most of the time though, the character will simply desire the compassion and understanding of another individual.

Characters enduring the depression phase will experience sadness, regret, and (sometimes) hopelessness above all else. The loss becomes very real to the character during this time and, as a result, they may smile less, desire to be alone, have a change in sleeping patterns, stop laughing, cry frequently, and view the world through a lens tainted by their personal loss.

5. Acceptance
At the end of the grieving cycle, the character faces the reality of the situation and makes peace with it… and with himself/herself.

Some characters may never reach this phase, and their pain, anger, denial, or depression will continue to dog them. Characters who never arrive at the acceptance phase may choose to travel the path of bitterness, revenge, or isolation, or may simply give up on life entirely.

Characters who find acceptance within their personal trauma are able to use it to fuel their future. The pain they have gone through becomes a drive for their goals and ambitions. They do not forget what they have endured, but they choose not to dwell on it or let it cripple them.

If the character is dying, the acceptance phase is one of calm and peace. The character may become thoughtful, quiet, and enjoy periods of isolation. Unlike the depression phase, though, this period is marked by a patient readiness (even happiness) and not a dogging sense of dread and unease.

Examples of the Stages of Grief in Popular Media
Now that we’ve examined each stage in the grieving process, let’s take a look at some examples of characters in media who go through grieving. As you will see, not every character experiences every single stage and each character experiences the stages of grief in a different order. Obviously, examining these examples will mean revealing spoilers from each reference, so be warned before proceeding.

Bridge to Terabithia: Jesse Aarons
The Situation: Fifth grader Jesse Aarons becomes friends with his new neighbor Leslie Burke after he loses a footrace to her at school. Leslie is a smart, talented, outgoing tomboy, and Jesse thinks highly of her. Jesse is an artistic boy who, in the beginning of the novel, is fearful, angry, and depressed. After meeting Leslie, Jesse's life is transformed. He becomes courageous and learns to let go of his frustration. He and Leslie create an imaginary world called Terabithia in the woods near their homes. In Terabithia, they are able to escape their everyday troubles at school and home. One day, Jesse goes to an art museum with his teacher (not notifying his parents beforehand or inviting Leslie to come along), only to return home to learn that Leslie died in a freak accident.

Denial. Jesse’s immediate reaction is denial. He simply cannot accept that Leslie is gone and rationalizes this belief in his mind.

“No," he said, finding his voice. Leslie wouldn't drown. She could swim real good
“No!" Jess was yelling now. "I don't believe you. You're lying to me!"
“It's a lie. Leslie ain't dead!”

He ran until he was stumbling but he kept on, afraid to stop. Knowing somehow that running was the only thing that could keep Leslie from being dead. It was up to him. He had to keep going.

Bargaining.  Jesse’s denial lasts all through the night. He forces himself to believe that the news about Leslie was all just a bad dream. Subsequently, he begins to feel guilty about not inviting Leslie to join him at the museum, knowing that if he had she wouldn’t have drowned. He roleplays the situation in his mind, thinking about ways he could have made things right with Leslie.

…[H]e could tell her about his day in Washington. And apologize. It had been so dumb of him not to ask if Leslie could go, too. He and Leslie and Miss Edmunds could have had a wonderful day-different, of course, from the day he and Miss Edmunds had had, but still good, still perfect. Miss Edmunds and Leslie liked each other a lot. It would have been fun to have Leslie along.

 I'm really sorry, Leslie. He took off his jacket and sneakers, and crawled under the covers. I was dumb not to think of asking.

He would go to see her the first thing in the morning and explain everything. He could explain it better in the daytime when he had shaken off the effects of his unremembered nightmare.

Anger. Jesse’s denial continues through most of Leslie’s funeral… until he overhears her father talking about cremation. This is the catalyst that causes Jesse to realize Leslie is truly gone and that he will never see her again. He begins to grow angry at those around him.

Cremated. Something clicked inside Jess's head. That meant Leslie was gone. Turned to ashes. He would never see her again. Not even dead. Never. How could they dare? Leslie belonged to him. More to him than anyone in the world. No one had even asked him. No one had even told him. And now he was never going to see her again, and all they could do was cry. Not for Leslie. They weren't crying for Leslie. They were crying for themselves. Just themselves. If they'd cared at all for Leslie, they would have never brought her to this rotten place.

He had to hold tightly to his hands for fear he might sock Bill in the face. He, Jess, was the only one who really cared for Leslie. But Leslie had failed him. She went and died just when he needed her the most. She went and left him. She went swinging on that rope just to show him that she was no coward. So there, Jess Aarons. She was probably somewhere right now laughing at him. She had tricked him. She had made him leave his old self behind and come into her world, and then before he was really at home in it but too late to go back, she had left him stranded there like an astronaut wandering about on the moon. Alone.

Later on, Jesse physically strikes his younger sister upon his return home.

He banged through the door. May Belle was standing there, her brown eyes wide. "Did you see her?" she asked excitedly. "Did you see her laid out?"

He hit her. In the face. As hard as he had ever hit anything in his life.

Depression. In a rage, Jesse takes Leslie’s Christmas gift to him and throws it in the river where she drowned—an attempt to severe his ties with her and heal the pain in his heart. It’s at this point that Jesse experiences a mental and emotional breakdown.

Gradually his breath quieted, and his heart slowed from its wild pace. The ground was still muddy from the rains, but he sat down anyway. There was nowhere to go. Nowhere. Ever again. He put his head down on his knee.

Upon first returning to Terabithia, Jesse feels a wave of depression strike as he wonders if the magic of the world still exists. Leslie brought the world to life, and he wonders if it will still feel alive to him now that she is gone.

He landed slightly upstream from Terabithia. If it was still Terabithia. If it could be entered across a branch instead of swung into.

Acceptance. After a deep discussion with his father, Jesse comes to accept Leslie’s death. He realizes that he needs to carry on in honor of his friend. He chooses to invite others to the land of Terabithia after a personal reflection about how much this imaginary land helped him cope with the troubles in his own life.

It was Leslie who had taken him from the cow pasture into Terabithia and turned him into a king. He had thought that was it. Wasn't king the best you could be?

Now it occurred to him that perhaps Terabithia was like a castle where you came to be knighted. After you stayed for a while and grew strong you had to move on. For hadn't Leslie, even in Terabithia, tried to push back the walls of his mind and make him see beyond to the shining world - huge and terrible and beautiful and very fragile? (Handle with care - everything - even the predators.)

Now it was time for him to move out. She wasn't there, so he must go for both of them. It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength.

Kingdom Hearts II: Roxas
The Situation: Roxas is a teen-aged boy growing up in Twilight Town with his three best friends. Roxas finds his sleep filled with mysterious dreams and he begins to experience supernatural phenomena that others are not aware of. With summer break coming to a close, he decides to investigate an abandoned mansion deep in the woods outside Twilight Town in order to complete an assignment for the upcoming semester. Inside the mansion, he meets a mysterious girl who has answers about his strange experiences and dreams. Roxas learns that he was never meant to exist, and that his life is not his own to live. He must return to his original body—a boy named Sora, who is currently comatose and will never reawaken unless Roxas returns to him.

Denial. Roxas begins with blatant denial. He refuses to believe that he simply doesn’t exist and that he is merely a small part of somebody else. The thought that he was never meant to be born is painful to him, so he blocks out the reality of the situation.

“What?! How could you even say such a thing? Even if it were true…”
“I am ME! Nobody else!”

Depression. However, as the days wear on—and summer’s end draws nearer—Roxas begins to question what the mysterious girl told him. If he truly was never meant to be born, then his entire life (and all that he accomplishes) is meaningless. His disturbing dreams continue, and Roxas finds himself having difficulty sleeping. When he hangs around his friends, he becomes preoccupied and stops smiling and laughing along with them. 

Roxas also begins viewing his world through an ominous lens. When his friend, Olette, casually comments, “We only have two days left together,” Roxas hears the worst and starts to panic. Olette clarifies that she was only talking about the two days left before summer vacation ended.

Anger. Eventually Roxas comes to learn that his entire world is fake—a hologram created by the man who tricked him into believing he was “real.” As memories of his capture and amnesia begin to come back, Roxas flies into a rage—destroying an entire supercomputer and relentlessly attacking a hologram-projection of the man who erased his memories.

“I hate you… so much!”

Acceptance. As Roxas arrives at Sora’s resting place, he realizes that his time has come. Sora must be reawakened. Roxas sees little point in continuing when the world he knew is as nonexistent as he himself was meant to be. Stepping over to Sora, he offers a weak smile and accepts his fate gracefully, fading back into Sora and reawakening him.

“Sora… You’re lucky. Looks like my summer vacation is… over.”

Naruto: Rock Lee
The Situation: Since he was a child, Lee has had the lifelong dream of becoming a great ninja. Unfortunately, he has no ability to use ninjutsu (special ninja powers) or genjutsu (mind-manipulating powers)—abilities deemed necessary for anyone wanting to become a ninja. In fact, ninja without these powers are considered rarities—and not for good reasons.

Growing up at the academy, Lee finds himself consistently bullied for his inability to pull off even the most simplistic ninjutsu. Ignoring the naysayers, Lee begins to focus on the one technique he’s only half-decent at—taijutsu, hand-to-hand combat. Through brutal self-discipline and difficult training, Lee becomes the very first ninja student to graduate who can only use one of the three ninja jutsu types.

As he continues training under his sensei, Lee advances beyond most of his peers and eventually gains entrance into the chunin exams (the next ninja rank), where he is pitted against Gaara—a ninja protected by an impenetrable barrier of sand. Lee becomes the first person to ever physically strike Gaara in combat, and literally beats him into the ground with his taijutsu, but the feat comes at a high price. His arm and leg are crippled in the battle by Gaara’s sand coffin jutsu, and Lee is told that his dreams of being a ninja are now unattainable. His only chance of recovery is a risky surgery with a 50% survival rate.

Lee is faced with two impossible choices: (1) give up on a life-long dream he’s worked so hard to achieve or (2) opt to undergo the surgery and possibly die from the process.

Denial. Even though he’s told his ninja days are over, Lee refuses to listen. He sneaks out of his hospital room in order to perform his daily training, regardless of the fact that his arm and leg are severely injured. He faithfully attends his physical therapy sessions and begins taking foreign herbal medications with the belief that he’ll be cured. Up to this point, Lee has persevered against his odds simply by pushing himself to work harder than the others in order to overcome his learning disabilities. Because of that, he believes that by simply wishing hard enough, and working hard enough, he can get better. He refuses to even consider the fact that his dream is finished.

“I have to finish my training!”
“I will never give up! I will be back stronger than ever!”

Bargaining. But slowly, Lee begins to wonder if hard work is really enough. Nothing he does seems to help, and when the top medical ninja in the land tells him his situation is nearly hopeless, Lee begins to question himself. He engages in “magical thinking,” picking petals off a flower in order to determine the outcome of a potential surgery attempt. In this way, he’s bargaining with fate. He’s asking for a sign, believing that something he does can affect the ultimate outcome.

“Success…? Or…”

Depression. The results of Lee’s bargaining turn out negative. He begins to grow overwhelmed by his situation. Since he was a child, his dream has propelled him past all opposition, but now pursuing it means risking his very life. With this impossible decision hanging over his head, Lee becomes exhausted. He develops insomnia, grows hopeless, seeks isolation, and skips his physical therapy classes.

“Even if I believe in myself… It will not make the slightest difference.”

Anger. Finally, Lee cannot withhold his anguish any longer. His body grows tense as he becomes angry with the situation he’s been put in. He’s had to work three times harder than his peers, just to get as far as he has. Now, he feels that life is being unfair to him, and he has done nothing to deserve this fate.

“How come I am the only one being punished like this?!”

Acceptance. Lee finds consolation and assurance through his sensei. He realizes that he needs to make a decision, and that even a bad decision is better than no decision at all. If he wants to be freed from the suffering of indecision, Lee will have to make a choice. He ultimately chooses to accept the surgery, recognizing the fact that his dream to be a ninja is what has brought him this far. To give up on it now would crush him, and he is willing to take a risk in order to continue pursuing his dream.

Spiderman: Peter Parker
The Situation: High school senior, Peter Parker, lives with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben who act as the parents he no longer has. During a trip to a genetics laboratory, Peter is bitten by a radio-active spider and begins to develop superpowers—shooting webs from his hands, developing an extra-perception sense, enhanced eyesight, and more. These additions come in handy for dealing with bullies at school… and impressing Mary Jane, a girl that Peter hopes to date.

One day, Peter sees an advertisement for a wrestling competition with a large cash reward for the winner. He envisions himself using the money to buy an expensive car and impress Mary Jane, confident that his new superpowers will guarantee him the victory. Not wanting to let his aunt or uncle in on his secret, he lies to Uncle Ben about where he is going and his uncle drops him off at a spot near the tournament. Peter receives a brief lecture from his uncle about the responsible use of power, but Peter brushes off the advice and he and his uncle part on poor terms.

Peter ultimately wins the wrestling match, but the promoter cheats him out of the promised money. A thief rushes in at that exact moment and steals a stash of money from the promoter. Peter allows the thief to slip by him, angry at the promoter’s double-dealings and feeling that it’s only just that the thief gets away.

Upon leaving the tournament, Peter finds out that his uncle has been carjacked and mortally shot. Enraged, he pursues the killer, only to discover that it’s the same thief that he let escape earlier. Had he stopped the thief when he had the chance, his uncle would still be alive.

Anger. After a brief period of mourning, Peter goes in hot pursuit of the criminal. He’s so angry he can hardly control himself and he wants only revenge. He shows no mercy to his uncle’s killer, not yet knowing his true identity.

“Did you give him a chance?! The man you killed?! Did you?! Answer me!”

Denial. When Peter sees the criminal’s face, and realizes who it is, cold denial freezes him in place. He briefly blocks out the thought that this man could be the same one that he let escape. During his temporary paralysis , the thief nearly kills him.

“No! No, not you!”

Bargaining. Peter replays the moment where he lets the thief escape. The cruel truth begins to dawn on him: if he had stopped the thief then and there, his uncle would still be alive. He begins to blame himself for his uncle’s death, believing it’s his fault and that—if only he had acted differently—he wouldn’t be facing this situation. This reoccurring thought continues to haunt Peter.

Depression. After dispatching the thief, Peter retreats to the isolation of a dark rooftop. He sits in silence, mourning for his uncle. Later, when Peter graduates, the thought of his uncle comes back to him, and he wishes more than anything that his uncle had been there on his special day. He goes to his bedroom for some private recollection.

“I'm so sorry...”

“I can’t stop thinking about the last thing I said to him.. He tried to tell me something important and I threw it in his face.”

Acceptance. Peter’s aunt comforts him with encouraging words. She assures Peter that his uncle loved him very much and that both she and Uncle Ben know that Peter is destined for greatness. Peter then realizes that the best way to honor his uncle is to heed his words: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Peter uses this to drive him forward as he fights crime and protects the city using his special gifts.  

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

A Final Note about the 5 Stages of Grief
When implementing the 5 Stages of Grief into your writing, use it as a tool to guide your characters and not an absolute to dictate what happens to them. Grieving is a difficult, painful process and each character will experience it differently. Don’t believe that there is one specific way to write about grief, or that a character must follow all five steps of the process in order to make your writing “realistic.” A more realistic approach would be to have your characters skip steps of the process, repeat some, and completely change around the traditional order laid out by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.

Remember to consider your character’s personality, values, beliefs, attitudes, and dispositions when they grieve. This will greatly affect what steps they spend the most time in, which steps they skip, how the overall process changes them, and whether or not they finally reach acceptance.

You may also enjoy:
The Psychology of Writing: 5 Ways to Create Emotional Connection Between Your Readers and Your Characters by Using "Uncontrollable Circumstances"
The Psychology of Writing: 4 Ways to Give Your Readers the Right Impression Of Your Characters, World, and Tone
The Psychology of Writing: 5 Ways to make your Characters “Click” with Readers using Vulnerability, Proximity, Resonance, Similarity, and Shared Adversity

1 comment:

  1. Good post! I've read a little about the five stages of grief, but I've never had them so thoroughly explained and with good examples. ;) Thank you!

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