Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Psychology of Writing: Character Development and Loneliness

One of the debilitating battles that your characters may encounter is the struggle against their own, personal form of loneliness. While it takes many forms, loneliness is a sense of hurt, sadness, depression, or resignation that stems from strong feelings of grief or inferiority and a need to form relationships with others; in some cases, it may be the result of psychological problems.

So, in today’s post, let’s talk about:
  • What causes loneliness
  • Physical signals of loneliness
  • Internal sensations of loneliness
  • Mental responses to loneliness
  • Cues of acute or long-term loneliness
  • Signs of suppressed loneliness
What is Loneliness?
Psychologically speaking, loneliness is a natural response to isolation—be that physical, mental, social, or psychological. In its simplest form, loneliness occurs when a person finds themselves alone with nobody to support or connect with them.

However, a character may also feel lonely due to social or psychological isolation. Perhaps they see themselves as inferior to others, believing themselves to not be as beautiful, intelligent, strong, athletic, or capable as others are; this creates a sort of self-inflicted isolation born from feelings of inferiority. Oppositely, an individual may feel socially isolated and alone, even when surrounded by others, simply because they are different. This factor of difference may be many things—physical appearance, race, wealth, abilities, and so on—but, regardless of the factor itself, this perceived difference creates a gap between the character and those around him/her, resulting in feelings of loneliness.

In time, overbearing feelings of loneliness may result in a character becoming depressed or—on the other extreme—angry at the world around them.

It’s important to understand, however, that an isolated character does not a lonely character make. Just because your hermit lives alone or your ingenious detective finds pleasure in solitude does not mean that your characters are lonely. Loneliness is an intense feeling of separation that results in a character’s desire for relationships and connections with others. If your character seeks solitude—and enjoys it—then they are not lonely; they are introverted.
Physical Signs of Loneliness
When characters experience loneliness, they feel disconnected from others and a sense of hopelessness often permeates their daily lives. After attempts at connectivity fail—or the character feels socially or mentally stigmatized by the world around them—they may begin to feel that any attempt at creating relationships is futile and resign themselves to their loneliness. This means that, when in social situations, lonely characters are more likely to avoid eye contact, stare at the sidewalk, give little or no welcoming expressions, and adhere to a routine. In discouraging change and new interaction, the character sets up mental barricades against further failed attempts at connecting with others; this is a psychological defense against being further hurt by their sense of isolation.

Should a lonely character try to form new connections, they are most likely to do so with people they have had little to no prior contact with (and whom they may never have contact with again). For example, a lonely character may more readily converse with a total stranger in a shopping line, look forward to speaking to the mailman each day, or create an online persona through which they live vicariously. In doing so, the character is able to present a new, or alternative, “self” to those they have never met (or who know little about them). This gives the character a feeling of empowerment and a sense of control in that they can “try a new approach” to gain connections with others.

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

Internal Sensations of Loneliness
The internal sensations are those that the lonely 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 to Loneliness
Mentally, a lonely person is drained by their isolation. Anything that reminds them of their loneliness is painful, and, as a result, they will often avoid social gatherings and public places. If they cannot avoid them directly, they avoid them psychologically—by keeping to themselves, looking down, avoiding eye contact, and speaking to no one.

Mentally, a character is likely to be consumed either by anger or sadness, though often the character will juggle between these two emotions as they obsess about the cause of their isolation. Lonely characters frequently daydream, or fall into thoughtful silence, so that they might escape to fantasy worlds of their own making, in which they are accepted and have ideal relationships.

Cues of Acute or Long-Term Loneliness
The sensations of loneliness mirror those of depression (which loneliness can escalate to under certain circumstances) in many ways. The lonely individual faces a daily battle of literal (or perceived) rejection. This constant disconfirming can lead to feelings of inadequacy and obsession with one’s loneliness. Characters may find themselves trapped in a vicious, mental cycle where they consistently ask the question: why?

  • Why do I have no relationships?
  • Why am I not accepted?
  • Is it my own fault?
  • Should I change?
  • Am I fated to be alone forever?
  • What make me so different than others?

Unfortunately, rather than ask such questions constructively, the lonely character finds themselves barraged by these questions that they cannot answer—that they do not, in fact, know the answer to—or that they simply do not want to answer. In turn, this detrimental cycle can result in mental exhaustion, insomnia, and even physical aches and pains.

In time, the character may decide that they are alone because they are not good enough—that others don’t enjoy being around them because they are unattractive, boring, awkward, weird, or socially stigmatized in some way. This can result in severe psychological consequences, and heavy, continuous thoughts of inadequacy, low self-esteem, depression, or even anger, may occur. In the most bizarre of scenarios, the lonely character may fall into hopelessness and begin contemplating suicide.

Loneliness, if left unchecked and allowed to prosper, will destroy a character, bit by bit, until little else matters to them but acceptance. Characters who do not find healthy ways to cope with their loneliness may begin engaging in constant stimulation in order to distract themselves and create a false sense of belonging or escape. They may begin to spend extensive amounts of time with (or even hoard) pets. Their appearance often becomes an afterthought, as they no longer care what others think of them, and they may gain weight, lose weight, or not bathe regularly or dress appropriately. To counteract feelings of inadequacy and rejection, they may spend unhealthy amounts of time on their job, volunteering for charity, or bingeing on food, media, or hobbies, in order to compensate.

In the long-run, this results in detrimental side effects for the lonely character. Physical effects may include obesity, high blood pressure, fatigue, and insomnia. Psychological effects may include self-doubt, feelings of worthlessness, addiction, recklessness, and depression.

Cues of Suppressed Loneliness
Characters who manage to suppress their loneliness do so with an exorbitant amount of self-control and willpower. However, they are often betrayed by an exaggerated sense of interest and need for stimulation that is outside their normal disposition.

For example, lonely characters may instantly befriend—or commit themselves—to anyone who shows even a small amount of interest in them. Sometimes, these characters may find themselves in poor, negative, or even abusive relationships through their intense desire to be accepted. They may also frequently text or call family, friends, or spouses in order to get consistent confirmations of their acceptance from others.

Less assertive types will express their loneliness by engaging in activities that show a craving for social contact. These may include people watching from a distance or frequently viewing online videos of others socializing and having a good time. Daydreaming is an enormous player here.

A Final Note on Loneliness
Loneliness is not introversion. An introvert is a character who seeks, thrives in, and enjoys their solitude. A lonely character is one who lives in self- or socially-inflicted solitude—who feels that they are not accepted on some level and who desperately wants to escape their isolation by forming strong relationships with others.

Loneliness is a very deliberate emotion. Unlike strong anger or feelings of sadness, which can become irrational and uncontrollable emotions, loneliness is a feeling that the character will try and work themselves through by engaging in various—oft-times unsuccessful or fragile—connections with others. Every action a lonely character makes should be done with specific intent: to achieve an end, reveal emotion, or to characterize themselves (or their ideal “self”) to others.

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.

The Psychology of Writing: Character Development and Sadness 
The Psychology of Writing: Character Development and Anger

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