Reaction to Reactions

Ronie Kendig has a BS in Psychology and is a wife, mother of four, and avid writer. Her first espionage thriller, DEAD RECKONING, will be released through Abingdon Press (March 2010) and the first book in her military series with Barbour, NIGHTSHADE, will release next July. An active member of ACFW, Ronie serves as the Book of the Year coordinator, assistant appointment coordinator for the conference, and on the conference Think Tank committee. She also does speaking engagements and teaches at her local homeschool co-op. Visit Ronie at her website or her blog!

Psychology . . . I’m sorry, but I just can’t get away from it, and really, neither should any writer because it is the study of mental processes and behavior. If you don’t understand the processes, then how can you accurately portray what’s happening with your character? I think we’ll take some time to explore very basic emotions over the next few months that might give you more understanding—and possibly ammo (I am a suspense writer, after all)—for your characters and stories.

ANGER – I have to confess, this is one of my biggest pet peeves in manuscripts because I see it all the time—but the author fails to quantify or qualify the justification for the anger. Most of the time, I’m left thinking, Huh? So let’s take this month to explore anger (no, no, I didn’t say experience it).

Basically, anger is aroused in response to something that threatens our goals, our safety, our beliefs, or our family or property. Anger is a protective mechanism and a secondary emotion. Granted, psychologists and scientists often disagree on labeling basic and secondary emotions, but for the most part, anger is “masking emotion”—it hides what is really prickling your character beneath the surface. Hurt, fear, grief, etc. It’s sort of like a rebound off a feeling the character doesn’t like. Perhaps your hero has felt slighted before, and when he’s passed over for that promotion he’s sacrificed countless hours for, he tumbles into a fit of rage.

Let’s hold up on that rage, though. Because that’s slightly different—more intense—than anger. A hero can be angry at a politician on TV for something said, but that’s not going to provoke him into hysteria . . . unless he has been burned in the past and reached the “black moment” where enough is enough.

Recently, Cindy Woodsmall blogged here about the Four B’s of Your Character. As she so aptly pointed out, you cannot accurately portray a character’s reactions or motivations without knowing what happened before, behind, and between the scene you’re writing. There is nothing more frustrating than to read a scene where the heroine flies off the handle and yet there’s been absolutely no set-up for her reaction—if you don’t know why, we won’t know why (and this can translate into the reader not carrying, which means poor sales).

Anger has four stages: The BUILD-UP is where the initial event sets the stage. An incident threatens your character in some way, but most characters at this point can shrug it off and keeping going.

But then that’s not enough conflict to carry your story through, so you have to throw more at them. Unseat their false sense of security that everything will be fine. At this threat, the character enters the HEAT-UP phase.

Think of it as lighting the pilot on a furnace—the initial burst of fire is the incident. Now, it’s not so easy any more for the character to “let it go.” The fuel is running and they’re agitation is growing; they’re seeing red and wanting a release for the adrenaline that spikes to help protect them from letting this happen again. But somehow, they dig deep and manage to maintain control.

And then you (kind soul that you are) throw something else at them and—KABOOM! The EXPLOSION. Restraint gone, good sense tossed aside, the character does something they vowed they’d never do. There is absolutely no turning back or repairing what they’ve done.

Now, they must face the CONSEQUENCES and pay the piper—perhaps an innocent wounded in the wake of their eruption, or a person they intentionally inflicted harm on and brought about unimaginable results.

Understanding the four phases is one thing, implementing them into your story is another. Most likely, your character will have already been through some of these phases when your story opens. Perhaps all of them—and the story is about him/her not repeating those mistakes. But you still must walk us through the journey.