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


  1. Great post! :D I definitely have some angry characters lol. I knew those descriptions sounded familiar! I love the Emotion Thesaurus. So handy for getting rid of those generic actions. I'm probably going to use it when I'm editing my current draft. XD

    Stori Tori's Blog

    1. The Emotion Thesaurus is **so helpful!** It's saved many a bland sentence in my novels xD I consider it a must-have for any writer.