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:
- Denial. Blankness, shock, numbness, disbelief.
- Anger. A sense of betrayal, of abandonment. Maybe blaming oneself, others, or even the deceased for the loss.
- Bargaining. Trying to reason away the loss or else buy a respite from it.
- Depression. The full weight of the loss. Desolation, heaviness, terrible sadness.
- Acceptance. The loss is a part of the self. Internalization, incorporation, moving on.
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.
- A gritty, hardened character can beg and sob and be overcome with fear of a life without the object of their grief.
- A timid character might cope by being the shoulder for others to cry on as they deal with their loss; they may gain closure by affecting strength until they actually feel strong.
- A sexual character might do exactly as one would expect and lose himself in the arms of another.
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:
- Strength and weakness are relative terms. The distinction, for instance, between crying as a testament to the strength of a bond between two characters and crying as a method of making others feel sorry for a character’s loss is palpable. Decide for each character what constitutes “strength” and “weakness” and show the reader the difference. Grief is a good time to do this because it is typically a process where a character’s true colors are bound to show themselves eventually, even if they try to hide their suffering or their process is more nuanced than other characters’.
- Grief can come with nostalgia. A grieving character may look with a kinder eye on memories that include the person they have lost. They might long for those days, focus on them to the detriment of their present and the people in it. They might put the deceased character up on a pedestal, refuse to hear anything negative about them, or decide that their not-so-great experiences with that character were actually better than they’d remembered.
- Memory loss isn’t uncommon. When a character is first told about the death of another character, he might enter a state of shock. While in this state, the character might be so overcome or so numb that he cannot recall later what he said or did while in that state. He might not even remember that the other character has died. You can read a bit more about this here.
- Loss makes people uncomfortable. Like, really uncomfortable. When characters who are not grieving or who are grieving to a lesser extent encounter a character who is very much in mourning, they are often afraid to say or do the wrong thing and cause more pain. It is awkward to say the least.
Characters may not know how to treat a grieving character because that character isn’t behaving as he normally does, whatever that means. When you write about loss, it might be a good idea to write about how other characters perceive the grieving character, how they react to him and speak to him while he is grieving. You could tell the reader a lot about a character’s grief by describing the reactions of the characters around him.
- Grief can be stifling. It can remove a character from their routine, even make that routine seem pointless, selfish, or absurd. It can stomp on convictions, creativity, and relationships with other characters. Deadlines might be missed. Children may go uncared for. These are usually earmarks of the Depression stage of grief, and this period of apathy or listlessness might be a good way to slow the pace of the narrative you’re writing. It may create an interlude between spikes of action, sort of like the quick breath taken by swimmers before plunging again into the water.
- Grief isn’t neat. It doesn’t decline over time in a smooth slope. A character doesn’t have to recover from a loss gradually or at all. Grief isn’t something you get over; it’s something you accept. The acceptance of a loss might look more like a seismograph than a bell curve. Keep that in mind as you write. Feelings of grief may surface unexpectedly.
- How dead is dead? Did the person die right in front of the character or was the character just told of the death? If the character wasn’t present at the death can she take another person’s word for it that it even occurred? If your character could get away with denying the death even happened, would she? For how long?
The sliding scale of physical proximity to the death of another character could play a huge role in how your character will react to their death. Shock might be a more appropriate first response for witnessing a death, whereas denial is more common if the character is not physically present when the event occurs. Shock and denial tend to blend together after a while, though it’s up to you to figure out the exact measurements.
- When was this person supposed to die? Before or after the character in question? A father or grandmother is supposed to die before their daughter or grandson. This dynamic, the dynamic of perceived inevitability, could create subtle differences in the way a character copes with a loss. A character will grieve differently for a child than for a parent. The grieving process could be longer with a child because parents do not expect to witness the sudden death of their child. This dynamic might also be affected by prolonged illness. If a character who has been ill for a long time dies, the grief a character feels over the death will be different. Different how, you ask? Well, that’s up to you.
- How much death has your character seen? If your character has experienced a lot of death in her life, you can be sure that she will handle grief differently than a character feeling loss for the first time. You can play with desensitization by creating a situation where a particular death was special and triggered a pronounced grieving period. It could be a stranger or a best friend, a lover or an enemy; that death was special, and the character’s grief shows the reader a different side of him. Alternatively, a character who has never grieved before could play into expectations by mourning deeply or freak the reader out with a minimal reaction to death. And everything in between.
- Rituals can help some people cope with loss and may disgust others. Many people mourning a loss have expressed feelings of comfort and closure connected with carrying out the religious rituals associated with the death of a loved one. Other people find no solace in ceremony and prefer to grieve in their own way. In either case, it’s good to know about these rituals because they tend to encourage behaviors that might be useful to apply to your characters. Check out an overview of some death rituals at these links:
Remember, it is best to witness a ritual first-hand before writing it. If you cannot be present at the ritual you wish to write about, at least find someone who has and who is willing to describe it to you in detail. Otherwise, you not only risk misrepresenting the ritual, you may also miss details worth knowing that may be important to your character.
- The surprising twist is not always stronger than the expected reaction. Sometimes the reader just wants the character to be plain ole sad, to mourn as they mourn the death, to be the cliché. You don’t always have to write the jarring, betcha-didn’t-see-that-coming reactions and emotions for your characters. Sometimes the common sadness, the anger, the fear of the unknown that humans tend to feel in response to a death is enough. There’s something to be said for tapping into the universally-acknowledged emotions people feel as they grieve. Again, how to interpret this advice and when to use it is solely your decision.
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!
asked: I feel like I’m using the phrase “widening eyes” or any variation of it too much. Are there other ways that are just eluding me?
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:
- It’s one of seven universal expressions of emotion (the other six are disgust, sadness, joy, contempt, anger, and fear).
- It is a neutral expression, meaning that it displays neither positive nor negative attributes. The measurement of these attributes as positive or negative is known as an emotion’s valence.
- It’s evolutionary, physical purpose seems to be to take in as much information as possible in as short a time as possible.
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:
- It is brief. While everyone is going to react differently to a given situation, one thing on which we can all agree is that true surprise is a short-lived emotion. Unlike emotions like anticipation or awe, which might be significantly prolonged, surprise is practically a blip on the radar. Bear this in mind as you write: Whatever physical signs of surprise your character exhibits, they will only have that particular physical expression of emotion for a moment.
- Surprise segues into other emotions within seconds. Surprise is a gateway emotion. It doesn’t stick around long, so it’s almost instantly replaced with the reaction emotion, which might actually be the more important emotion of the two. It is important to register the surprise of a character, but it may also be vital for the reader to know what that surprise becomes because it will likely color the character’s surprise. For example, if a character is surprised then angry, that anger is probably more important to spend time describing than the surprise.
- Hiding surprise is not an option. You’re right to want to display surprise physically; it is one of several emotions that are nigh impossible to conceal. A few common physical signs of surprise:
- Eyebrows up and curved
- Upper eyelids raise to open our eyes wider
- Quick breath (not always)
- Open mouth; jaw drops (not always)
- Horizontal wrinkles appear on forehead
- If it’s prolonged surprise, it’s shock. Shock, also known as acute stress reaction, is a different animal altogether. There are not common facial expressions for shock, though certainly the stereotype is a blank, expressionless face. A character in shock may seem as though he or she is in a daze, unable to react quickly or see (sometimes physically) the situation clearly. Accelerated heart rate, sweating, nausea, and flushing are also common in sufferers of shock. These symptoms are not present in the expression of surprise, but may become present soon after where surprise has segued into shock. Like in the common saying goes, “After the initial surprise, shock sets in”.
- Surprised and startled are two different things. To be startled is to have an instinctual, fearful reaction to external stimuli.
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.
“Most psychologists consider startle
to be different from any human emotions, more like a reflex to intense sudden stimulation. The startle expression is unique.” (x
So, how can you vary your description of surprise? Here are a few suggestions:
- Try using the other well-known facial cues besides widened eyes. Open mouth, dropped jaw, and sharp intake of breath are nothing to shake a stick at, but “wrinkles of surprise appeared on her forehead” has a certain magic to it, don’t you think? No one talks about wrinkles.
- Surprise may not be limited to the face. There are other body parts that might be busy showing the character’s surprise. What if your character dropped whatever he was holding or missed her mouth with her spoonful of hot soup? What if your character’s knees locked? What if his fists tightened or she jumped back from whatever surprised her? Try expanding your search for physical reaction to the rest of the body for variety.
- Do it with dialogue, onomatopoeia, or other noises. Instead of talking about widening eyes, get your characters to talk for you. Have them express their surprise through cursing or various euphemisms. This sort of reaction will likely come during the time the character is transitioning from surprise to their reaction emotion, which is why we have such a huge variety of ways to express our surprise through words. From “oh my lanta!” to “ACK!” to “bloody hell!”, a character’s surprise might be best exhibited via dialogue. If it’s onomatopoeia you’re going for, what sound does he or she make? Maybe your character always yelps in surprise, or squeaks or barks or gasps dramatically. Don’t discount the occasional noise in lieu of dialogue if the situation warrants it.
- Do it with quirks. Maybe your character always hiccups in surprise or cracks her toes or clasps his hands. Does he pale? Does she get goosebumps? If your character always does these things when he or she is surprised, you may be looking at a quirk. This quirk is sort of a trademark of the character, and when you describe it in association with an emotion, the reader will come to understand without having to be told outright every time that when the character starts hiccuping or blanches, he or she has just been surprised.
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
“Struggle with how to show, not tell a character’s feelings? Need help creating fresh body language that does come off as stale or cliché?
The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression is a writer’s best friend, helping to navigate the difficult terrain of showing character emotion. Through an easy-to-use list format, this brainstorming tool explores seventy-five emotions and provides a large selection of body language, internal sensations, actions and thoughts associated with each. More information on this resource can be found on our Goodreads page or scroll down for our SAMPLE ENTRIES.”
Follow the link to read more.
Robert Plutchik created a wheel of emotions in 1980 which consisted of 8 basic emotions and 8 advanced emotions each composed of 2 basic ones.
Eight Basic Emotions
Basic Emotion ⇄ Basic Opposite
- Joy ⇄ Sadness
- Trust ⇄ Disgust
- Fear ⇄ Anger
- Surprise ⇄ Anticipation
Combination of Basic Emotions (A + B) = Advanced Human Emotions (Opposite Advanced Emotion in Parentheses)
- Anticipation + Joy = Optimism (Disapproval)
- Joy + Trust = Love (Remorse)
- Trust + Fear = Submission (Contempt)
- Fear + Surprise = Awe (Aggression)
- Surprise + Sadness = Disappointment (Optimism)
- Sadness + Disgust = Remorse (Love)
- Disgust + Anger = Contempt (Submission)
- Anger + Anticipation = Aggression (Awe)