I Have A Reading Niggle!
My thoughts on showing emotion in writing, particularly anger.
When I’m reading a novel for review, I have a mental list of points which make or break it for me. I think we all have them; some readers will abandon a book in which the dialogue is unrealistic, for others it might be over-use of adjectives and metaphors.
One element that I have a problem with is when a writer has over-played one emotion, especially when that emotion is anger.
Anger is dramatic. It can be violent, loud, or smouldering underneath. It’s also exhausting; I find the smouldering sort of anger more realistic, as it tends to build throughout the book, for instance, within the main character in a thriller. If it is written well, this can gain empathy from the reader, rather than make them want to step away and read about someone with a calmer outlook.
The type of anger I find jarring is when a character responds to a situation or confrontation only by shouting, swearing, perhaps throwing a tantrum, to the point it becomes boring and unpleasant to read. You know the character in a soap opera who is always taking what people say the wrong way and storming out of the pub, etc? Someone who reacts in this way, often, tends to be avoided by others. Such reactions are draining emotionally, and, in real life, people are not so volatile; your average adult does not make a habit of shouting, throwing tantrums or flying off the handle. Yet recently I’ve read quite a few books in which a main character seems incapable of reacting in any other way.
In the same way as using abusive language in dialogue, if any emotion is used too much, the impact is watered down. Use it sparingly, in a short burst, and it has a higher impact. If your character needs to be angry at the world then there are lots of other emotions that can express this, like sulking, wanting to be alone, bitterness, cynicism, anxiety. Most people display a huge range of emotions every single day; fictional characters should, too.
For professional advice on writing a range of emotions, I recommend the Writer’s Craft books from Rayne Hall. She talks sensibly about every emotion having a physical effect, in her book Writing Deep Point Of View, and also how to use a character’s mood to see different slants on situations.
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I’d be interested to hear any other readers’ opinion on this.