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Using your grief and other emotions to deepen your characters

It’s difficult to write about deep painful emotions, even in our characters, unless we’ve experienced them. And, even then, it’s not an easy task.

Strong emotions can be overwhelming. Sometimes we numb ourselves or run away in order to avoid our feelings. I used to do that until I realized on some level that the emotions would fester inside me until I actually did the work of processing my feelings and healing myself. The advantage of doing this when you’re a writer is that you can use what you learn about your emotions to deepen your characters. I wrote about this earlier in “Draw on personal pain to write believable characters.”

But I want to delve deeper into this subject today because I’m working on a scene in my novel where I’m trying to understand the complicated grief my antagonist has about his sister’s death and how it motivates him to do bad things.

Grief is one of the most complicated emotions because it can have shades of guilt, shame, anger, and other feelings mixed in.

When my parents died, my grieving was complicated due to the nature of our relationship—my father was a perpetrator of domestic violence and my mother was his victim. When she died, I felt as if I also grieved the happy life she never had.

While working on my antagonist’s back story, I realized he could also grieve the life his sister never had because she died young. And, because she was murdered, his grieving is infused with anger turned to rage and a life-long plan of revenge against the perpetrator. See how his story is deepening already?

After my husband died, my grief was complicated, in part, due to other people’s responses.

For example, I received a voice mail message recently from a man my late husband used to work with in the health field. This man didn’t know my husband had died so I needed to call him back and let him know. But I avoided doing so for over two weeks. Why didn’t I want to call him?

I was afraid of what he might say because a handful of people had some pretty dramatic responses to my late husband’s passing and said some hurtful things: 

  • “I can’t believe you didn’t call me. Don’t you know who I am? I could have healed him.”
  • “Haven’t you ever heard of wheatgrass juice?”
  • “You should have told me he was sick.”
  • “How could he die?” (Meaning “he worked in the field of health so how could he die?”)
  • “Well, obviously what he did didn’t work.”
  • “Didn’t he know that all disease stems from emotions?”
  • “You’ll feel better when you start dating again.” (This two weeks after his death).
  • “Did he have any guns that you don’t want?” (Within a month of his death).

I’d like to make it clear this was not the norm. Most people were wonderfully supportive and kind but there were the handful who said unbelievable things to me. When I think back on them, I laugh or just shake my head because, seriously, what else can you do? But, at the time, it was painful.

In my grief, I also felt guilt, shame, anger, sadness and sometimes all of these at once–like a giant tornado of emotions swirling around me, threatening to unroot me and fling me skyward.

This is why I didn’t want to call back that man.

heart of stoneHave you ever known someone who was in a relationship that ended very badly? They’ve been traumatized. After the break-up, they swear they’ll never go through that again, and they build walls around their heart to keep people out. That was how I felt. I was afraid that this man would say something inane or painful.

Now, I understand why people said the things they did.

Death makes us uncomfortable and makes us realize our own mortality. None of us wants to look death in the eyes and see ourselves mirrored there.

Thinking about this made me realize that my antagonist in my story could be similarly traumatized. He’s attracted to the protagonist but so traumatized by his sister’s death that whenever he begins to feel too close emotionally to the protagonist, he pushes her away and becomes distant.

His plan of revenge on her family becomes complicated because of his conflicting feelings for her and for his sister. See how these nuances of emotions can really deepen a character? And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I know I’ll find more there, and I’m excited to discover what it is.

The blessing of being a writer is that I can use my experiences and everything I’ve learned from them to deepen my characters. And, because I can now laugh at some of the things people said to me, I can infuse some humor into my character’s experiences too.

As I wrote about in “Add a new dimension to your writing with humor,” sometimes the best way to convey strong feelings is to inject humor.

Before experiencing grief, I could have written about my characters’ grief from the outside in and it may have been believable enough. But now I can write about it from the inside out with all the complicated nuances.

If you’re a writer, take heart. Don’t run from your strong emotions. Instead see how you can use them to make your characters and your writing stronger.

If you’re going through grief or have unprocessed grief that you’ve been avoiding, I’ve found journaling is a great way to start the healing process. The advantage of writing things down is that you can skim through your writing later, panning for those nuggets of insight or wisdom that you might be able to use in future writings.

If you’ve read this far, I have a special request that has nothing to do with writing.

During this holiday season, reach out to someone you know who’s alone or missing a loved one and let them know you’re thinking about them. Or, better yet, invite them to coffee or tea or to take a walk with you.

Happy Holidays!





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