Friday, July 18, 2014

The Psychology of Writing: Character Development and Sadness

From The Lion King to The Lord of the Rings, every great story features characters that experience sadness. Grief is a natural part of the human condition, and learning to write sadness believably is an integral part of developing a fleshed-out character. Like anger, which we discussed previously, sadness often falls prey to melodrama. A better understanding of sadness—its causes and symptoms—can help writers (like you) develop sadness in a character without resorting to unrealistic melodrama.

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

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

What is Sadness?
From a psychological perspective, sadness is a natural response to something that often seems beyond the individual’s control. Feelings of helplessness produce sadness, for example. People who believe that they are at a disadvantage, who have suffered a loss, or who feel overwhelmed by life and the situations around them are going to experience sadness as a result. These all stem from a loss of control and/or a situation or emotion that seems beyond an individual’s control. Feelings of hopelessness and instability result, and sadness forms. 

Loss is perhaps the most common trigger of sadness, whether that be the loss of something tangible like property, treasure, money, or a loved one; or something more psychological, such as comfort, stability, or control. These losses can be further agitated if they are accompanied by feelings of helplessness.

If the sadness becomes especially severe, it may transform into depression. As I recently discussed as a part of my Character Development using the 5 Stages of Grief article, sadness in this case is marked by a harsh realization of reality. When first confronted by something sad, depending upon the severity, some characters may unconsciously choose to deny that the cause of the sadness exists. Once the reality of the situation sinks in, sadness (or depression) comes to the forefront. In this moment, the sadness is a mental, conscious realization that something truly has happened to cause the sadness, and that the sadness is real. In this way, sadness is very much a reminder of reality—a reminder that suffering and pain exist.

Physical Signs of Sadness
Sadness overwhelms and exhausts the body, often leaving distinguishable traces of weariness, fatigue, and an unconscious (or conscious) desire to escape the cause of the sadness and be alone.

Many of these physical symptoms involve shrinking the body in an attempt to make one’s self look smaller. These might include hunching the shoulders, bowing the spine, ducking the head downward, hugging the knees, or drawing the limbs close to the body. Characters who experience sadness are likely to hide their faces, or keep their faces turned away from others around them. This is often because they don’t want anyone to know of their inner feelings, see their pain, or possibly notice the tears in their eyes.
In addition, the character may perform unconscious rituals during times of sadness, such as touching mementos of loved ones, muttering a prayer to themselves, or rubbing at spots on their body that “hurt”—usually the heart or chest area.

Characters overwhelmed by sadness are able to focus on little else. If they aren’t able to find isolation away from others, then those around them will likely pick up on physical manifestations of sadness—a listless gaze, a monotonous voice, a tendency to respond slowly, and a magnetic-like desire to stare at the floor (or in another downward direction, such as at the hands or knees).

The important thing to remember about “physical symptoms” is that the sad character is unlikely to realize they are exhibiting a majority of the symptoms. These are signs that usually go observed by outsiders, alone, though the sad character may consciously be aware of some things—a desire to be alone or to process dialogue slowly, for example.

Internal Sensations of Sadness
The internal sensations are those that the sad 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.

As we’ve already mentioned, exhaustion is a large part of sadness. Internal pressures and agitations, especially in the throat, eyes, and heart are very common. The character’s throat my feel tight, for example, or their chest might ache from uneven breathing or strain.

Mental Responses to Sadness
Unlike anger, which often causes agitation to stimuli, sadness often results in a dampening of sensitivity to stimuli. When a character is sad, they usually want to be alone. If they can’t physically be isolated from those around them, the character will mentally isolate themselves with their sadness and the stimuli that caused it.

For this reason, characters experiencing sadness are unable to focus on what lies directly in front of them. Conversations become difficult to follow, responses and mental processing slows to a crawl, and the sadness at the heart of the character’s problem consumes every ounce of the character’s gray matter. Their minds become focused on the sadness—unable to see past it, in fact—and they often develop tunnel vision of the future, seeing it as hopeless.

Some characters—the less introverted ones—may seek consolation with the outside world. They don’t want to hold the sadness within them and try to find an outlet for it. This includes: conversing with trusted friends, visiting counselors, or even seeking escape through television, drinking, sleeping, or absorbing themselves in a favorite hobby.

Cues of Long-Term Sadness
Sadness is marked by a sensation, much like a wave of unhappiness that washes over the character. If these waves continue to crash on the character, the sadness may escalate to depression—a long term, severe sadness, marked by loss of appetite, sleeping disturbances, disinterest in hobbies and daily life, and self-neglect.

Even if the sadness does not escalate this severely, sadness that goes on for several hours or days can reveal similar symptoms. A continuously tear-stained face, wet eyes, un-even breathing, excessive sighing, and expressions of hopelessness are all signs of sadness that has been dragged past its initial “first wave” or feeling of sadness.

Cues of Suppressed Sadness
Depending on the character’s disposition (and the situation), he or she may try to hide or suppress their sadness. This means that they try to hold it in for a variety of reasons—to save face, to be “brave” for others, to attempt to “force” themselves to recover, to avoid getting attention from others, or even to try and erase any evidence of the stimuli that caused the sadness.

Characters trying to suppress sadness will do two prominent things: (1) seek isolation and (2) hide their faces and emotions. Seeking isolation is typically the preferred method for suppressing sadness, as it’s simply easier. However, characters forced to be around others—and who can’t find physical isolation—will do their best to avert (or cover) their faces from others in order to hide any traces of sadness or simply avoid conversation and attention (in many cultures, making eye-contact is an invitation to speak to another person). In order to gain moments of respite, the character may use the bathroom frequently, go on long car-rides, or distract themselves with busy-work, food and drink, or reading, in order to appear busy to those around them.

Sadness is a difficult emotion to contain. It flows out in the form of tears, a shaking voice, broken (or tense) posture, mental sluggishness, fidgeting, and listlessness. Because of this, it’s incredibly difficult to disguise and can easily be read on the face or in the heaviness of the character’s movement. Those trying to hide or suppress their sadness do so by hiding the tell-tale facial expressions and removing themselves from the presence of others.

A Final Note on Sadness
In my recent article about Character Development and Anger, I discussed the fact that anger often falls victim to melodrama in character-based writing. Sadness also falls into this trap, perhaps even more so. For this reason, it’s vital that your sadness be balanced by realism and humanity. 

Pay close attention to what causes the sadness (the stimulus) and how long the character has been enduring it. Sadness is marked by realization of a loss or hopeless situation; it’s a strong emotion that springs from an acknowledgement of reality. Traumatic incidents are often first characterized by the character denying the existence of the stimulus, only to later recognize it, unconsciously label it for what it is, and respond with feelings of sadness.

By now, you’ve probably picked up the fact that sadness is a process. If the character responds instantaneously—and dramatically—to a stimulus, then you might want to take another look at your scene. It’s highly possible that your character is acting out of melodrama. Sadness is a gradual realization, and it’s often characterized by a need to hide one’s emotions, not express them to everyone nearby (unless, of course, it is in the personality of your character to do so).

One way to cut back on melodrama is to condense moments of sadness as much as possible. Rather than spend a whole chapter detailing the effects of a stimulus on a sad character, abridge it to a paragraph or two (or a page or two). Highlight the most powerful, important points of the stimulus, how it causes the character to grieve, and what reactions the character puts into motion as a result. When dealing with sadness, less is more. A simple, meaningful paragraph or scene can mean a lot more than an entire chapter dedicated to tears and internal monologue.

For more information about writing sadness 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 may also like:
The Psychology of Writing: Character Development and Anger
5 Tips for Writing Chair-Gripping Suspense
5 Tips for Writing Action-Packed Fight Scenes