Friday, June 20, 2014

The Psychology of Writing: Character Development and Anger

Sooner or later, your character is going to get mad. And I don’t mean “mad dog” mad. I mean steam-out-the-nostrils mad. Because anger is such a human emotion, it’s important to be able to portray an angry character without resorting to melodrama. Finding that realistic, human balance isn’t always easy, but it can be made easier if you—the writer—take a few minutes to research this natural, emotional response.

So, in today’s post, let’s talk about:

  • What causes anger
  • Physical signals of anger
  • Internal sensations of anger
  • Mental responses to anger
  • Cues of long-term anger
  • Signs of suppressed anger

What is Anger?
Psychologically speaking, anger is a natural response to a perceived threat. When a character encounters a stimulus that they feel endangers something important to them (a person, object, belief, value, etc.), they are likely to feel angry as a result. 

I recently discussed anger as a part of Developing Characters through the 5 Stages of Grief. The same principle applies there. When a character is grieving—when they have lost something precious to them—they feel threatened, and anger is a natural response.

Some view anger as a part of the flight-or-fight response, meaning that—when provoked—the body begins pumping adrenaline and preparing for immediate action. Anger is an immediate response to a perceived threat. When characters show classical symptoms of anger (yelling, grinding teeth, glaring, etc.), they are acting in much the same way a cornered animal would. The function of anger—at least, from the provoked character’s perspective—is to warn a threat to “back off.”

Because anger shows correlation with the flight-or-fight response, it puts the character’s body under stress. Their blood-pressure goes up, their heart beats faster, and their adrenaline is let loose in their body. Long-term anger can be both emotionally and physically devastating, as increased blood pressure (and other physiological factors) can affect a character’s health in the long-run.

Physical Signs of Anger
As anger is an emotional defense against a perceived threat, most of the physical signs of anger involve the character making himself/herself appear to be more intimidating than the stimulus.  This may include grinding the teeth, holding the chin high, glaring, and speaking low or with a growl in the throat.  

Rather than let anger loose on an emotional rampage, however, some characters will try to keep anger in. This results in very different physical signs, including: sweating, repetitive movements (pacing), tightness in the muscles, and reddening of the face. We’ll talk more about these later.

These physical signs of anger are most likely to be recognized by an outside observer and not the angery character. While the character may be aware of some symptoms, such as sweating, a lot of these physical signals may occur without them realizing (or intending) it.

Internal Sensations of Anger
The internal sensations are those that the angry character is completely aware of. These signs may go completely unrecognized (or at least, unobserved) by onlookers. Internal sensations are still completely physiological (or pertaining to the physical body), and are not to be confused with mental responses, which we’ll address next.

Mental Responses
Emotions provoke thoughts. Thoughts dictate actions. When characters are angry, their judgments and inhibitions often become clouded. During this time, they are likely to become more sensitive to even the smallest threatening stimuli, overreacting to these stimuli as a result.

When a character is occupied with anger, they develop tunnel vision. Their mind becomes a battlefield of emotions. They are often unable to focus on anything else besides their raging feelings and the stimulus that provoked them. When something, or someone, tries to distract them from these feelings and thoughts, the character will usually become more irritable, and the embers of anger will be fanned even hotter.

Cues of Long-Term Anger
When I think of anger literally burning, I think of Hades from Hercules.
As previously mentioned, when anger is allowed to boil for an extended period of time, it can have detrimental consequences on a character’s physical and mental health. It’s often been said that anger is a fire, and that’s perhaps the best analogy for it. Fire, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. It can be used for “controlled burning” for example, in order to clear out old things and allow new ones to flourish. However, leaving a fire to burn unsupervised—or refusing to put it out—will ultimately do harm to everything in its path. It will devour both the old, useless things and the new, promising ones.

If anger is allowed to blaze unchecked, it may evolve into something even more sinister, such as rage or revenge. I’ll likely be discussing these separate emotions at another time.

Cues of Suppressed Anger
Some characters are more patient than others. The character’s personality will have a lot to do with how they respond to perceived, threatening stimuli. To some, withholding anger may be seen as favorable—due to religious beliefs, personal standards and values, professionalism, or other factors.

Even the most patient or pious character, however, is not exempt from emotions. Anger, like any other feeling, cannot be chosen, only controlled. Some characters will decide to let it ravage freely. Others will try to rein it in. Those who fall into the latter category will respond to anger differently. They are more likely to seek isolation where they can vent silently to themselves, for example, whereas “anger unleashers” are more likely to directly confront whatever has enraged them.

A Final Note on Anger
Like sadness, anger is an emotion that often slips unintentionally into melodrama due to its wild and unpredictable nature. In order to keep your character’s anger believable, pay attention to the situation, circumstances, and stimuli that creates that anger. Has an important part of your character’s life (values, self-image, family, property, etc.) been perceptually threatened? If not, then they probably don’t have any reason to be angry.

Don’t unleash anger all at once (or with too much dramatic flair) unless your character is written that way. Realistically, most characters will “feel out” the situation, even if only for a moment or two, before they respond. Some will portray more subtle anger (laughing harshly, speaking snarkily, or giving the silent treatment). Others will directly confront the stimulus that caused their anger and try to threaten it into leaving them alone.

When writing anger, know your character. Know their weaknesses and personal beliefs. Know what they are most passionate and defensive about. Know their basic boundaries. If one of those basic boundaries are threatened or violated, you can be sure anger of some kind will follow.

For more information about writing anger and other character emotions, I highly recommend The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi. The lists and charts in this article are all adapted from that book. All rights reserved.


You might also like: 
5 Tips for Writing Chair-Gripping Suspense
5 Tips for Writing Action-Packed Fight Scenes
First Impressions, Right Impressions: 5 Tips for Introducing a New Character

Saturday, June 14, 2014

**Special Guest Post by Victoria Grace Howell** Character Interviewing: How it Can Help Your Blog and Your Writing

Today Meek-Geek is featuring a special guest post from writer and author-to-be, Victoria Grace Howell. In this article, she discusses how writers can use character interviews to increase interest in their original stories and cast (and how to properly conduct said interview). Please read and enjoy!

In case you missed it, I was recently featured on Victoria's blog with a post about Villain Motivation. Be sure to check that out too! Happy reading, everyone! 


Bryce, Caleb and Pro from my science fiction novel Subsapien Biomech
We all want our characters to be developed, and there are many techniques to do so. Today I’m going to show you a technique that has helped me flesh out my characters. 

So what is this character interviewing?

Character interviewing is when you “ask” your character a series of questions and answer them as your character. I think of them like cast interviews for a movie aka your book. Asking your characters a series of questions and figuring out the answers helps you develop your character more thoroughly. The better you know your character the easier they are to write especially if he/she is one of your main characters, but this also assists with side characters that don’t have point of view roles in your novel. There are several ways to acquire questions.

  1. Yourself – You can either think up questions or use some of the loads of character development charts you can find on the internet.
  2. A Friend – Getting a friend to ask the questions in better than yourself usually because they usually think of questions you wouldn’t.  That makes you think a little bit more and tap into parts of your character that your own questions wouldn’t.
  3. Multiple People – Asking multiple people is the best because you get a wide variety of questions. Ask your group of writing buddies, friends and family or do what I do—post a character interview prompt on your blog.
Character interviews help your blog because your readers get to have a taste of your characters, and you get good amount of reader interaction. I’ve been doing character interviews for a while now, and I’ve always gotten great response and lots of views especially with my enhanced method. 

These are the steps I take:

1. Bio – I prepare a bio of the character. I keep it to only two paragraphs in length. I include six things in it: the character’s age and position in the book (main character, side character, villain, ect.), his/her’s goal, he/she’s personality, he/she’s setting and a few unusual facts about him/her. This way the readers get a good idea of who they are. Most of the time I include a picture of a celebrity look alike or a photo I found on Pinterest to go along with it so the readers know how I imagine they look like.

Example Bio:
Mor from Red Hood
Mor is a seventeen-year old aspiring red hood or werewolf huntress.  She lives at the red hood manor positioned near silver mines on the west side of the Queendom of Silfurlund. Half-mechanical werewolves have plagued her country for three hundred years and only women with the hereditary Spirit of Silver can keep these enemies at bay. When she was very young, her father went missing in the war which has given her extra drive toward the defeat of the beasts. Both Mor's mother and granny have been legendary huntresses, saving hundreds of lives and becoming great legends. It is Mor's dream to continue this legacy.

As is tradition, she owns a wolfhound to assist her in her missions to protect the nearby villagers. He is her constant companion and named Sielgair. Claes and Dina, a silver miner's son and a fellow red hood to-be, are her two best friends and perfect opposites to her plucky personality. Though at times Mor can be hot-headed, her bravery and tactical abilities are unquestioned by her fellow red hoods in training. Her skills with double silver axes and black powder pistols have put her at the top of her class. At eighteen Mor will be able to graduate and become a full-fledged Red Hood. That day couldn't come soon enough.
2. Post Early – I post my bio, prompting the readers to ask questions, about a week in advance. This gives the readers plenty of time to ask questions. Don’t forget to thank all the commenters!
3. Format the Post – I like to collect the questions as they come and then format the post the day before posting. This way I have all the questions together and can arrange them in a good order. If I get doubles of a question I just pick the first person’s question or if that’s another person’s only question, I pick that one. I like to format the post in a clear way with lots of white space. Another thing that’s fun to do is to have me and the character do actions within the interview like smiling, shifting, etcetera to make it feel more real. I put all actions between asterisks.
Here’s an excerpt from the interview with my fantasy character Mor for an example of formatting:

*nods* Question two: What's your favorite dish?

I like roast goose and mince pies, but I can't get enough of tarts. Black currant, raspberry ... Any tart I will eat it.

I like them too. And Jedi Kyra's last question: And one more; what are you most looking forward to about becoming a Red Hood?

It's a tie between the travel and no more lessons to be frank. *laughs a little*

Sting and Serra from my science fiction novel Subsapien Grafting
A few extra tips:

Be sure to answer all of the readers’ questions – Unless it’s a big spoiler answer all their questions. The reader took the time to comment so make sure to include them. 

Answer like your character would – Make sure to answer the questions in your character’s voice. This helps you get the hang of their voice. Even if you disagree with the character’s answer it’s the character answering the questions.

Thank the Commenters – Thank the people who left the questions within the post. They took the time think up questions for you. Acknowledge their effort.

And there you have it! That’s how to do a character interview. I hope it helps your writing. ^ ^

Have you ever done a character interview before? Have you ever read one before?


Thursday, June 5, 2014

5 Tips for Writing Humor: The Art of the Unexpected

Laughing is healthy for you. In fact, studies have shown that watching comedies can lower your blood pressure, among other things. If writing humor is your forte, then perhaps you should consider yourself a “word doctor” of sorts.

But regardless of the genre you write—satire or drama, mystery or sci-fi—humor is an important part of the story’s pacing. A well-placed moment of humor can help dispel an overbearingly dark moment and snag your reader’s attention back to the scene at hand.

So today let’s talk about a few unique ways that you can incorporate a bit of humor into your writing.

1. Humor is usually unexpected
Some regard this as the golden rule of humor; however, notice the word usually here. While most humor works well because the audience doesn’t see it coming, other humor comes about based on what the audience anticipates (or expects) will happen. But we’ll discuss that in a moment.

In some way, shape, or form, every tip I’m going to detail here follows this basic rule: humor is unexpected. Readers don’t predict the humor coming (or at least in the manner it actually comes); this takes them by surprise and amuses them. Laughter ensues.

So whether you’re misleading the audience with a cliché, using comparisons, getting specific thoughts out of a character’s head, or refuting realism, remember this primary rule. Don’t let ‘em see it coming!

2. Agree to Agree (a.k.a.—avoid being realistic!)
This particular type of humor works especially well with slapstick, comedy, parody, and satire. Depending on the character, perspective, and scene, it may also work well in other genres.

Art by Joegpcom.
“Agree to Agree” humor works when characters take things that other characters say literally. In other words, the receiving character does not ground the humor in reality. When the receiving character grounds another’s humor with reality, the chain effect of the hilarity is lost. Instead, both characters should silently agree with each other to keep absurdity intact.

Let’s look at an example from the nonfiction novel, Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell. In this first example, the doctor character grounds the first line of humor in reality, which breaks the would-be humor chain:

Patient: I’m having trouble with my leg.
Doctor: I’m afraid I’ll have to amputate.
Patient: You can’t do that, Doctor.
Doctor: Why not?
Patient: Because I’m rather attached to it.
Doctor: (Losing heart) Come on, man…
Patient: I’ve got this growth on my arm too, Doctor.

Notice the punch-line here: “Because I’m rather attached to it.” This in itself is rather comedic, but the doctor dispels any chance of returning the humor because he responds realistically to the situation (“Come on, man…”).

Now, take a look at this revised example. See what happens when the doctor “goes along” with the absurdity of the situation:

Patient: Augh!
Doctor: Whatever is it, man?
Patient: It’s my leg, Doctor.
Doctor: This looks nasty. I shall have to amputate.
Patient: It’s the one you amputated last time, Doctor.
Doctor: You mean you’ve got a pain in your wooden leg?
Patient: Yes, Doctor.
Doctor: You know what this means?
Patient: Not woodworm, Doctor!
Doctor: Yes. We’ll have to remove it before it spreads to the rest of you.
(Patient’s chair collapses)
Doctor: My word! It’s spreading to the furniture!

In this example, the doctor goes along with the patient’s humorous lead. He takes the pain in the wooden leg as seriously as he would a flesh-and-bone leg. Furthermore, he goes on to detail and comment on the effects of the so-called woodworm. This is humor generated by the “agree to agree” approach.

Of course, much has to do with the character’s personality. Not all characters are likely to humor others (or take others seriously) in this way. Know how your character operates and use “agree to agree” accordingly.

3. Twist Predictability (a.k.a.—mislead with a cliché!)
Remember when we discussed the fact that humor is based on the unexpected? Sometimes gags and jokes have been done and re-done so many times that they lose their comedic value. Using a cliché bit of humor in your writing can be just as bad as using a hackneyed plot. In fact, this kind of humor can turn your audience away.

That’s what makes this particular trick so wonderful. You lead the audience into thinking that you’re about to make a cliché (or predictable) joke, but then turn the cliché on its head by making it something surprisingly original. This satisfies the “unexpected” requirement.

A great example of this occurs in the film Frozen. The scriptwriters knew that when the comedy-relief/sidekick snowman, Olaf, first appeared on the screen it was vital to endear him to the audience right away. The audience would likely be quick to generalize that Olaf is going to be a typical, cheesy sidekick with hit-and-miss humor. In order to quickly endear him to the audience, the scriptwriters lead Olaf’s introduction with a bit of clever humor that, at first, seems pretty predictable.

After meeting Anna, Olaf approaches mountain man, Kristoff, and his friendly reindeer, Sven, to get introduced. It goes something like this:

Anna: I’m Anna.

Olaf: And who's the funky looking donkey over there?

Anna: That's Sven.

Olaf: Uh-huh, and who's the reindeer?

Anna: …Sven.

Olaf: Ah, ok! Makes things easier for me.

This bit of humor works because the audience is misled by Olaf’s initial statement. They think he’s taking a wise-crack at the reindeer, Sven, by calling him a “funny-looking donkey.” When he asks who the reindeer is, and the audience realizes that Olaf was actually calling Kristoff the “funny-looking donkey,” the humor ensues.

4. Humor of Expectation (a.k.a.—suspense is funny!)
Most humor involves some aspect (no matter how small) of the unexpected. However, especially when dealing with characters’ personalities, humor can often come from the audience’s knowledge of a character’s track record.

Say you’re reading a book where the main character (we’ll call him Steve) is horrifically allergic to cats. In fact, just mentioning the word cat can send him into a sneezing typhoon. This becomes more and more apparent as you read the story. Now imagine that, as you continue reading the story, Steve falls in love with a cute girl at his college named Beth and (after months of working up courage) finally gets the guts to ask her out. They go on a date or two and decide that they’re perfect for each other. 

Beth invites Steve to her house so that he can meet her family. With his hopes high, Steve dresses his best and heads over to Beth’s house. After stepping into the living room, Steve discovers (to his horror) that Beth’s house is full of cats. In fact, Beth considers these cats to be part of her literal family. She’s the equivalent of the crazy cat lady stereotype—only at the young age of 22.

As a reader, you find this entire situation painfully humorous… but only because you know about poor Steve’s predicament. Watching him struggle to fight his allergies in order to impress Beth (forcing himself to pet, and personally meet, each and every cat; struggling not to sneeze; etc.) is comedic gold. It’s funny, in part, because the reader personally knows Steve’s weaknesses (Beth doesn’t… yet).

A similar approach would be to reveal to the reader that Steve is allergic to cats, and that Beth has a house full of them, before Steve makes the trip to her house. In this way, the comedic expectation builds even more because the reader anticipates what will happen once Steve rings the doorbell.

5. Be Specific (a.k.a.—get in your character’s head!)
This type of humor works best when you’re detailing something from the POV of a specific character. Use the character’s personality and channel it into their perceptions of the world around them. The key is, when you describe something from a certain character’s perspective, to pick out very specific details in order to bring some humor to their voice. When combined with comparisons—similes, metaphors, and the like—this is even more effective.

Here is an example from a novel by Terry Pratchett:

A crude hut of driftwood had been built on the long curve of the beach, although describing it as 'built' was a slander on skilled crude hut builders throughout the ages; if the sea had simply been left to pile the wood up it might have done a better job.

Notice how the author uses very specific comparisons and details in order to bring out the humor surrounding the hut. Instead of just saying: “An old, decaying hut sat on the curve of the beach,” the author uses POV-specific details in order to create a dry sense of humor.

Look at the following two examples. This first one is before any specific details or comparisons are made:

Hack rolled his head back, staring at the ceiling for patience he didn’t have. It was obvious that he was actually trying to get rid of the crick in his neck—likely brought on by the myriad of ridiculous chains that dangled from his face. 

You could always hear Hack coming before you saw him. It was his fault. He called it art and he decided to put it there—on his face. The chains jangled loudly and always announced his presence.

Perhaps that version is somewhat amusing, but it lacks a lot of the POV character’s personal thoughts. There are no real specific details given, and no comparisons are made. Now, take a look at the revised scene which adds comparisons and specific details:

Hack rolled his head back, likely begging the illusive ceiling god to strike him dead so he could quit inspection duty permanently. Either that or he was trying to relieve his neck of the weight of all those chains dangling from his face.

You always knew when Hack was coming. His jangling, self-imposed “artwork” could be heard within a quarter mile radius. On a blustery day, it sounded like a wind-chime war was raging on his face.

Using specific comparisons, filtered through the POV character’s personality, this second version has more life and more comedy. It’s a double benefit for the writer: the dry humor amuses the reader, but also gives them insight into the POV character’s thoughts and personality. In other words, it’s a win-win.

Here’s one final example that makes use of a comparison in order to achieve humor (credit to Alex Shvartsman’s blog Darkcargo):

Game of Thrones is a lot like Twitter: There are 140 characters and terrible things are constantly happening.

In this case, your readers must be familiar with both Twitter and Game of Thrones, but if they are you’ve just sold them comedy gold.

Humor is situational. It’s absurd. It’s ironic and dry. It’s in your character’s head. It’s in the phonetics of the words you choose. It’s also more integral than not. Few stories are told without it.

That being said, these are just a few of many, many tips on writing humor that you can find out there. Use them wisely. Here are a few helpful tips when deciding what sort of humor to use:

  • How will humor affect the scene or mood? Does it have a specific role, such as lighting dark emotions or giving the action a breather?
  • Who/what is the source of the humor? If it’s a character, does the humor coincide with the character in a believable way?
  • How does your character’s personality influence the type of humor on the page? If your character is dry-witted, a goofball, or downright corny, these attributes will cause the humor to differ. Don’t contradict your humor and your character’s personality.
  • What voice are you writing in? Humor often comes through narration as well as dialogue. If your writing has a serious tone, satirical or dry wit may be a safe approach. If your style is more openly comedic, perhaps slapstick and standup humor would be appropriate.
  • What can you specifically focus on in order to add humor to the moment? The more specific your details—the more tangible and relatable they are—the better shot you have at detail-specific comedy gold. Using similes and metaphors can paint a comedic picture in the reader’s mind.

Remember that people like different kinds of humor. It’s nigh impossible to write a joke that every person on the planet will find funny. Look for a style of humor that matches your genre and characters. Chances are that if your reader likes your novel, genre, and style to begin with, they’ll appreciate the angle of humor you’ve implemented as well.

You may also like:

7 Ways to Disguise a “Didn't-See-It-Coming” Plot Twist

The Art of Writing: 5 Ways to Grow and Involve Your Fanbase
5 Tips for Writing Chair-Gripping Suspense
5 Tips for Writing Action-Packed Fight Scenes
First Impressions, Right Impressions: 5 Tips for Introducing a New Character