One of my most popular posts shares tips for writing heavy emotional scenes. I think that post is popular because we often struggle with including emotions in our stories, especially when those emotions are intense.
In my own writing journey, capturing emotions in words (and in a way readers could experience) was one of the trickiest steps of my learning curve. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s The Emotion Thesaurus helped me with that struggle immensely. However, I’m far from perfect and still need to tweak those emotional scenes many, many times.
I’ve had an ask from an anon that’s been sitting around in my box for a few weeks now. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to answer it, it’s just every time I’ve read it, I’ve been unsure exactly how to go about it. I’ve even had doubts that I could answer it, even though I’m wholly qualified to do so.
The question was this: I have a character who had a tragic event happen and he’s fallen into a horrible depression. I’m not really sure how to write depression without coming off as being just sad all of the time. Is there more to it? Do you have any suggestions?
I’ve finally decided to answer. So, yes dear anon, I do.
Disclaimer: The following article is based on personal experience with depression (your experience may differ if you’ve had it or have it) and some past research. When I make generalizations, I’m correlating my experiences with my research. It is not an all inclusive guide nor is all of the information exclusive to depression. Some can pertain to other disorders as well.
You seem to have this figured out, but you need to understand that a single tragic event isn’t the only cause of depression. It can be, sure. The death of a loved one or another kind of loss can certainly cause it, but sometimes it’s not nearly that simple. Depression can be the result of a single large event, a barrage of large events (domino effect) or a lot of small ones over an extended period. What causes the initial sink is going to vary from person to person. And of course, what causes depression in one person is overcome by another.
Depression can happen to anyone. Even those who appear to have it all in life can be depressed.
The Large Event
Loss – This is broad. It can be the death of a loved one, a pet, the loss of a job, having either you or someone you love become permanently injured, the onset of a disease, the break up of a long-term relationship or divorce, childbirth (some women view it as a loss of freedom), losing a custody battle, loss of a parent’s love in legitimate cases of abuse and neglect, etc. Anything you can think of that would constitute a serious loss in a person’s life fits here and could easily be a trigger for depression.
The Domino Effect
When it Rains, it Pours – Sometimes shit happens in life. We all deal with things that go wrong. Unfortunately, sometimes major loss events happen in close succession. What some call a spot of bad luck is really disaster for others. I would refer to this as a loss of control; when a situation gets completely out of hand and you can do nothing but let it spiral.
The Little Things
They Add Up Fast –Now the definition of “little things” is going to vary between people. For some it can be as simple as a parent or family member forgetting their birthday, not picking them up at school, or missing their dance recital. Seemingly little mistakes can turn into an overall feeling of neglect if they keep happening. For others, it can be a case of favoritism. Perhaps your best friend seems to be favored by the coach of your sports team? Maybe your little brother seems to be the favorite of your parents and could probably get away with murder if he wanted to? Or maybe it’s that overwhelming feeling that no matter what you do, the universe is conspiring against you? Whatever it is, that “little thing” isn’t so insignificant to the person experiencing it. And sometimes, it compounds.
What Does it Feel Like?
A lot of people would define depression as a constant, overwhelming feeling of sadness, but really, it’s so much more than that. There’s a reason it’s so common and so hard to overcome.
The first thing to know is that depression is cyclic. Everyone has their day to day ups and downs but for people who are depressed, those downs may be more significant to them, and more frequent, than their ups. As an example, the feelings of depression can last for several years, and then something really good might happen to lift your character out, and he may be happy again for a while, years even, but eventually depression comes creeping back again. The cycles are different for everyone of course. Some may only last a few days while others last for weeks or months.
So, what does depression feel like? Well, there’s not a single word that can really sum it up because depression is a bombardment of many different feelings, symptoms and attitudes at once. When you’re depressed, you may experience some or all of these.
Sadness – Yes, you feel sad when you’re depressed. But it’s not the kind of sad you can get over easily. It’s not one that someone can try to cheer you out of. It’s deep rooted, and there may be a genuine reason for it that others can understand, or there may not. It may be a sadness that you’ve convinced yourself is real when there’s no logical reason to be sad.
Negativity –When you’re depressed you may view the world from a negative standpoint. Every little thing that happens to you (like not getting that toy you really wanted for your birthday, or missing that concert you had been excited for because of car trouble) is seen as a slight against you. A lot of people would shrug it off, and have an “oh well, maybe next time” attitude but when you’re depressed, that event seems like another item on the list of things preventing you from being happy. People who care about you may start to notice this negative outlook, but you don’t see it as a problem. To you, it’s normal.
Uselessness – Sometimes when you see the world as a half-empty glass, you start to feel like there’s nothing you can do to change your circumstance. When you’re depressed you tend to feel like you’re useless because, through your perspective, you’re constantly the victim. Everything bad happens to you and no matter what you do, you can’t fix it. You don’t even see a point in trying because it’s just not going to work. This is often reinforced by actually trying and constantly failing. Instead of learning from that failure, it’s just another shovel full of dirt to add to the hole. Even if you see a glimmer of success, it’s nothing compared to the amount of failure you’ve experienced.
Envy – You may be incredibly perceptive to the things others have that you do not. You may long for change in your life, want it with every fiber of your being and despise those who have it even if they’re perfectly deserving. You deserve it more. You know you do, because whatever it is will make you happy again, so why shouldn’t you have it?
Irritability – Sometimes, you may feel irritable towards other people, even if there’s no rational reason for it.
Burden – You may feel like you’re a burden to your friends and family. You know that you’re depressed and negative, and you feel like you’re annoying the people close to you whenever you try to talk about your problems, even if you really aren’t. You may also feel that the people around you are angry at you even if there’s no reason for you to think that.
Disinterest – The things that once made you happy, being around loved ones, drawing, writing, playing sports, etc, no longer do. You may still want to do that once beloved activity, but just can’t bring yourself to because you don’t see the point. Sometimes you can still do these things, but it takes a great deal of internal struggle to be able to. The future goal’s you’ve set for yourself may become meaningless. You may also just stop caring about basic things like cleanliness. You’ve been wearing that same shirt for a week? Whatever.
Loss of Appetite – You just may not be hungry for anything or you feel that cooking is a waste of effort. Foods you once loved, you may not care for anymore. You may stop eating on a regular schedule, and in some cases, stop eating all together.
Comfort Food – On the opposite end of the spectrum, you may take comfort in food and binge eat. This may result in weight gain which could further your depression because of the negative feelings associated with extra weight.
Low Self Esteem – This may be a cause or a symptom. Sometimes when you’re depressed you develop or already have a poor self image. There’s something you hate about yourself, whether it be a physical trait or a psychological one, and the inability to change it is frustrating to the point of sadness, even if in the eyes of others there’s nothing wrong.
Insomnia – People who are depressed often try to find distractions. You want to stop thinking about how terrible you feel. You go to great lengths to do this, often forgetting about your own health and throwing your sleep schedule out of whack on a constant basis as a result. You may also be prone to all-nighters if you find the right distraction.
Sleep Life Away – On the other hand, if you’re depressed you may just want to sleep all day to stop thinking. You feel like your life isn’t worth dedicating time to, so instead you sleep, hoping that your dreams will be better.
Needy – People with depression just want to feel better. You may crave attention from the important people in your life. Or anyone else who will give it. You want praise, positive attention. You want to hear, to see, to feel something good in hopes of being able to pick yourself up. It doesn’t always work, often resulting in an insatiable craving for attention.
Depression occurs in varying degrees. Sometimes people turn to less than favorable sources to make themselves feel better. Some turn to drugs, alcohol, cutting or sex, all of which may develop into addictions. Now I’m not saying that all people with depression are addicts, nor are all addicts depressed. But depression sometimes leads to addiction and when it does, needs to be taken seriously.
Suicide is a touchy topic for me, having known someone to have done so, but sometimes depression gets so bad, that it goes there too. Suicidal thoughts are serious, yes, but there’s a difference between thinking about it and actually making attempts to accomplish it. Suicide shouldn’t be romanticized in writing, nor should it to be glorified. It’s horrible and it’s desperate. Those who do it truly believe that they have no better option in life, that everything around them is caving in and there’s no possible way to get out, no matter how much love and support they may have.
Dealing with Depression
The two major ways to handle it are therapy and medication.
Medication is a mixed bag. There are a lot of depression medications on the market. Sometimes they’re a real help and sometimes the side effects outweigh the benefits. I’m a creative person. I write and I draw. When I was on medication, I didn’t want to do either of those things and felt like the pills were killing my creativity. My mind felt numb, completely disconnected from the person I was before the pills. So I stopped taking them.
Medication isn’t always the right choice and should be discussed with a doctor. In my case, my depression was manageable, so I tried the pills to see if they would help. There are people who are far worse off and may actually need the medication to function in the real world.
Here are some common side effects of the depression pill Zoloft (sertraline, which may make symptoms of depression worse before anything gets better) that your character may experience:
- Skin Rash.
- Diarrhea/Upset Stomach.
- Loss of Appetite.
- Weight Loss.
People with depression may also be embarrassed by their diagnosis. They may outwardly act like everything is fine around their peers and go to great lengths to hide their pill bottles. For your character, it’s going to depend on how he feels about his depression. Is it something he’s come to terms with or is it something he wants to hide?
Most people with depression realize they’re depressed, and probably realize they need some help but getting that help is an uphill battle. For years and years I always told myself I’d go chat with someone. I never did and ended up working out my problems with the help of some friends who were good ears. People with depression are really good at making excuses for not doing things. Because some of us are stricken with that feeling of uselessness, we tend to tell ourselves that maybe we’ll have the courage to do something tomorrow instead of today. We rarely do.
For your character, he doesn’t necessarily have to go see a therapist (they are kind of expensive, which can be a factor). But if he’s accepted the fact he has a problem, and is open about it, then I would expect him to at least have one close person that he’d be willing to confide in.
In the constant battle of ‘showing vs telling’, describing your character’s emotions is one place that telling can sneak into your writing.
Think about the physical effects of emotions in order to show how your character is feeling.
Don’t say they are nervous - show them refusing food, or repeatedly going to the toilet. Show them tapping their feet, drumming their hands, pacing the room. Show them checking their watch over and over, playing with their hair, or biting their lip.
Don’t say they are sad - show them retreating to their bedroom, show them listening to sad songs, or not paying attention to the television in front of them. Show them hugging a pillow, hiding under the duvet, writing angsty poetry. Show them crying, wailing, shaking, rocking. Show them eating ice cream, chocolate, cake.
Don’t say they are excited - show them chattering away, jumping up and down, clapping their hands. Show them grinning, laughing, hugging their friends. Show them dancing, running in circles, doing cartwheels.
Don’t just tell your readers what your characters are feeling; show them the physical effects of the emotion - physical effects that your readers can relate to. It will make your characters more real, more animated, and it will bring your readers closer to them.
How to write Guilt. -C
Hmm, okay. Guilt is something I know a lot about.
Everyone experiences guilt differently. Like, for me, guilt is amplified and often misplaced due to anxiety and depression. I feel bad about really dumb pointless things.
There are different levels of guilt, too. A kid feeling guilty about a lie is different from guilt for hurting a friend or something.
A character may have differing physical reactions to guilt. They might feel nauseous or uneasy. People may become defensive.
One portrayal of guilt I really like would be The Doctor. (Ignoring the recent events with the 50th special.)
Aside from the pain of destroying his people, there are plenty of times when the Doctor fails to save someone. That guilt lingers and stays and you can see how it affects him.
Another character who shows guilt would be Aang from Avatar the Last Airbender. He feels guilt. He left his people because he was afraid, and his people suffered. He’s a really child-like character, but he’s someone who has a lot of regrets and has to grow up very quickly.
Feeling guilt is not pleasant at all, and people can be good at repressing it or denying their feelings.
People can feel guilty about things completely out of their control, too. It’s a really complicated emotion.
Thank you, Mandark!
More links for guilt:
Hurray learning things about guilt! *confetti*
Possible trigger warning: Death will be mentioned several times throughout this article. The word is mentioned, as well as how people deal with their own death and the death of loved ones, but you won’t find anything too specific or descriptive. Still, if you don’t feel comfortable, don’t continue.
Losing something or something we really love it never easy. The same should happen with our characters, given that they are real people, with real emotions, which need to be portrayed as accurately as possible in order to let the reader relate and understand them easily.
To better portray the emotions a person goes through when grieving, one should first and foremost understand The Five Stages of Loss and Grief (also known as The Küber-Ross model), an interesting hypothesis introduced by Küber-Ross. This hypothesis was primarily designed based on people who were dealing with the imminence of death, but later on, it was recognized to also fit other common types of grieving, such as the death of a loved one, losing a job, the end of a relationship (break-ups), the end of a friendship, a child going through their parents’ divorce, etc. This hypothesis says that, when grieving, people go through five stages:
Denial is a temporary defense mechanism that helps people buffering the immediate shock. You might hear people say “I am fine”, “This can’t be happening”, etc. People usually use this defense mechanism as a way to postpone facing the facts, even though, unconsciously, they might be well aware of what’s happening. When that awareness becomes conscious, there’s anger.
Denial masks the pain, but it eventually comes back when one accepts the denial cannot continue. This is when reality strikes and what happened finally sinks in. People are likely to feel like they don’t care about the event due to the feelings of rage. This anger may manifest itself in several ways: one can become angry at oneself, at someone in specific, at a group of people or simply at everyone and everything. When someone is dealing with anger from grief, it’s generally better to remain detached and nonjudgmental, in order to let people be angry. It’s a natural and healthy feeling, that only means the person is walking on the road to moving on.
Depending on the type of loss a person is experiencing, this stage can manifest itself in different ways. People will try to find ways to delay the outcome, by trying to bargain. This stage involves the hope that things can still change, and the unavoidable result might be eliminated or, at least, delayed. When the person realizes bargaining will bring little to no results, they move on the next stage
Given the fact that depression is a clinical condition, this term shouldn’t be taken literally. While, in extreme cases, this is the stage where people might fall in a clinical, serious depression, some people may just face extreme sadness. A wide range of feelings is common in this stage: sadness, fear, regret, uncertainty. In this stage, people tend to detach themselves from the world, by spending a lot of time alone and even pushing some friends and family away. It’s recommended to let someone be sad when they need to be, as dealing with our own emotions is important to finally get to the last stage of grieving: acceptance.
Individuals accept the unavoidable and become more positive. They slowly go back to their everyday lives, which may have been neglected in the earlier stages of grief. However, this might not always be a happy period. This simply means individuals are finally at peace with their loss, even though the pain might still be very fresh and strong.
People grieve differently. The process of grieving isn’t an exact formula that’s applicable to everyone. These stages aren’t always easily distinguishable, and people might skip stages or go through them in different orders. While this is the most common way of grieving, people are different and, therefore, they’ll going to mourn the loss of something or someone loved in different ways. Some people might go through all five stages in a month, while others may take months, years, or never get to the stage of acceptance. These people often become frustrated and angry at the world, and they might start suffering from conditions such as anxiety or depression.
The process of grieving also depends on the personality of the individual and their specific characteristics and even their cultural background. Someone who always tries to look on the bright side of things might be faster at grieving, but it shouldn’t be assumed that this person will not grieve loss. Loss isn’t easy for anyone, even those who seem to always have a smile on their faces. One way or another, everyone will have their own ways of going through difficult moments. Unlike most Occidental cultures, some societies celebrate the deaths of their loved ones by singing, dancing, and wearing white on funerals. They do so because they believe these people are now in a better place, in the company of those who have also left before. While this doesn’t mean that people are happy for someone’s death, they tend to approach the event more lightly and positively that most Occidental societies do.
When someone finds out death is imminent, they grieve the imminent loss of their own lives. People start by denying they are going to die, by saying they feel fine and there’s no way it could happen. Then, they become angry, “Why me?”. Bargaining to a higher power to try to buy some more time is also common in cases of imminent death and, when the bargaining fails, people fall into sadness. The emotional detachment that comes with the stage of depression is important, as well as the feelings experienced by those grieving. They finally accept their own fate as something inevitable, which often happens before their loved ones get through with their own process of grieving for the imminent loss of this beloved person. While grieving before death usually leads to an easier acceptance of the matter, it can also lead to a more prolonged process that will only bring sadness and a feeling of helplessness to those who have to experience the imminent passing.
Death of a Loved One
Facing the death of a loved one can also start by denial. We know so little about the aftermath, and therefore we ask ourselves too many questions about where this person might be and what they would want us to do. Anger doesn’t always manifest itself, especially if the person died from natural causes or prolonged illness, as people might immediately skip to the stage of depression. Bargaining isn’t uncommon either, with commonly-heard expressions such as “I’d give anything to have him/her back”. However, this is a more conscious bargaining, since people are aware of the irreversibility of death. Depression is the lengthiest phase, where people reminisce on times with that loved person and go through very hard moments when they realize they’ll never see this person again. Not everyone gets to accept the loss of someone they love, but it’s common to start understanding the concept of finitude and start to rediscover life without this person.
Breakups aren’t easy, and the denial phase might be long and hard to overcome. The person who was broken up with often tries to keep in touch with their former lover, and they keep finding excuses for rejection. They tell themselves the person might want them back and, therefore, refuse to stop living in denial and to move on. When reality finally strikes in, they become angry at the person who broke up with them and at themselves, wondering what they could have done to avoid the ending of the friendship. The stage of bargaining might come before the anger, as it is known for the exhaustive tries of finding a compromise “Can we still be friends?”, “I will change for you!” are common phrases in the stage of bargaining. When they come to the realization that the bargaining failed, people either start becoming angry, and then depressed or, if they’ve experienced anger before, they might become sad immediately. The depression stage is where people go through the best and worst moments of the relationship and miss them the most. Acceptance comes when people realize that maybe, it was better this way.
The most important thing when writing grief is to make it clear that it’s very subjective, and don’t try to stereotype it. Play around with these five stages and adapt them to your character’s personality, in order to create a believable and relatable state of mourning, which will add substance to your character and maybe make your readers feel those emotions as well.
Feelings Extrapolated - The roots of your characters’ emotions.
Anonymous asked: Hi, I was wondering if you folks had any resources that describe different grieving processes people go through? I think most everyone has heard of the ‘stages’ process (anger, denial, bargaining etc.), but it’d be awesome to have something that goes into greater detail about it, or offers some sort of alternative. :)
The stages of grief are actually pretty standard. There’s really no need to search beyond them for alternative methods of examining grief, though of course you may look into the books in our further reading section for more strategies for understanding and coping with loss.
We, however, are going to focus on the Five Stages of Grief, also known as the Kübler-Ross Model. For the record, these stages are:
This list isn’t meant to represent the proper emotional journey of grief. There is no normal way to grieve. These stages may be of uneven length or create a loop to repeat until there is some epiphany and the sufferer can move past it; some stages may come out of order or not at all. But mostly, this is a pretty decent angle at which to start examining grief.
It’s easy to look at those five stages and think of a list like that as limiting, boring even. Each grieving process will be unique to the character going through it, as will the feelings and actions of the character at each stage. Characters exhibit grief in myriad ways. They are not limited by the most obvious clichés of denial or depression.
And, of course, there is everything in between. Messing with the reader’s expectations for a character’s reaction can yield powerful results. As John Green wrote in The Fault in Our Stars, “Grief does not change you, Hazel. It reveals you.”
Here are some assorted tips and observations on writing grief. Do with them what you will, but remember that these are not universal:
There is obviously a lot more we could say on grief, both in coping with loss and in writing it, but that ought to get you started.
Here are some links to further online reading:
And here are some book lists on this subject:
Thank you for your question! If you have anything to add or any further questions, please hit up our ask box!
Let’s just start by saying that—Surprise!—emotions are complicated and not everyone feels them or exhibits them in the same way. There are, however, more ways to exhibit surprise than the old stand-by of widening eyes.
What is surprise?
Surprise (n): A feeling of astonishment or shock caused by something unexpected.
Other things to note about surprise:
Keep in mind as you write that the intensity of the surprise and the emotions that follow a character’s initial surprised reaction are situational and extremely personal to the character, though there are a few general things to remember about surprise:
Since feeling startled involves fear and fear is a separate emotion from surprise, your character will likely have slightly different physical expressions of their emotion. A startled character will likely cringe, flinch, or go into a crouch. This cringe is just as instinctive as the hallmarks of surprise, but it is not indicative of surprise. A startled reaction is its own special thing.
So, how can you vary your description of surprise? Here are a few suggestions:
The best way by far to learn to describe an emotion is to research it thoroughly. With that in mind, check out these awesome resources to learn more about surprise:
Thank you for your question! If you have anything to add to this article or a question of your own, please visit our ask box!
I’m bored and my coffee is cold, therefore:
Briefly (and creatively) describe your favourite facial expression.
I’ll start. Mine is that deadpan expression, completely drained of emotive wrinkles or curves or glimmerings, that only comes when one says something along the lines of “this is my shocked face”.
P.S. This could be super useful to people looking for creative facial expressions for their writing. Might be worth a peek at the comments. Just sayin’. #JustifyingMyRandomness