The Role of Anger

Now another note that’s been sitting in my bin of writing advice drafts for a while, that should really be on this blog instead.

When you’re writing a character and they get angry, it’s very important to understand the root causes, both when and why, because anger is a very special emotion, not quite like the others.

While most emotions come naturally, anger is, on some level, chosen as an alternative to just accepting some other emotion… and that’s also why it’s so exhausting. Even if it’s become a habit, when anger tires you out, it’s because of the mental effort involved in forcing your mind toward one state, when it would more naturally try to be in another state you’re trying to reject.

You feel angry because you don’t want to accept what the situation is forcing you to feel, be it embarrassment, or helplessness, or despair, or grief, or any of countless other unpleasant emotions. Anger is the last action available to you in a powerless situation… the one last “f___ you” your brain offers when the alternative is to accept that there’s nothing you can do. (You can be punished for being angry, but nobody can deny you the option to feel it without resorting to medication.)

I’ve had it argued to me that this doesn’t feel quite right for things like impulsive rage, and I’d be thrilled to discuss further, but, for now, I think that this is a good approximation, even if it turns out to not be perfectly correct.

Even if a character’s rage has become so impulsive that it skips right over the emotion it would otherwise be fighting to replace, it’s useful to always think of anger as being in reaction to something that the character would more naturally feel.

This is also why it’s so important to properly understand why a character is feeling angry. It’s not just a question of what makes them angry, but what they’re trying to reject and why they felt it was better to feel angry and compromise their judgment than to accept that other emotion.

John/Jane Doe would feel fear or despair or some other thing because of backstory element A, but, instead, they feel anger or rage or whatever because of backstory element B.

There’s also one other interesting observation that came to me while preparing this: Depending on the situation and how you look at it, you might say that feeling angry is an act of cowardice. The sign of someone who, on some level, isn’t brave enough to confront and accept the emotion it’s replacing. Not always a useful way to look at things… but potentially the lead-up to a novel twist to a character. Anger may exist as part of our motivation structure to solve problems, but society has made it much more common to run into a problem where anger just prevents you from seeking or accepting the help you need.

CC BY-SA 4.0 The Role of Anger by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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