Sure, as writers, we want NOTHING to do with this emotion. Between manuscripts returning from critique partners with their guts ripped out to agent form rejections to a book review that compares our writing skill to that of a lobotomized hamster, frustration awaits at every turn.
We develop coping strategies to avoid it: pep talks before opening email. Chugging Diet Dr. Pepper by the six pack. Sucking on the sweet innards of M&Ms, pretending each one contains a Muse’s orphan tears and gives us writing superpowers. *coughs* What, you don’t do that? Erm, yeah….me neither.
So, on the keyboard side of things, frustration sucks. But on the page? MAGIC.
Frustration–that hair-pulling, chair-kicking delight–is what drives our novel. It juices our plot, makes our characters twitchy and unfulfilled, and glues the reader to the page. Keeping characters from their goals creates Frustration (AKA Tension, the Heartbeat of a story).
So while WE try to avoid this emotion, it’s important we make sure our CHARACTERS don’t. In this state a character reveals who they really are. Frustration is emotional GOLD, forcing them to ACT, which pushes the story forward.
Of course, no two people express their Frustration the same way, and neither should characters. Understanding their Emotional Range (how they express emotion and to what degree) is key to creating believable emotion.
When up against a wall, a character might:
Run from the problem
Try to manipulate/influence
Vent out loud
React with violence
Take out anger on others
Ask for help
Analyze what happened in hopes of understanding
Fall into a bottle, feed an addiction, drink orphan tears
Act like it doesn’t matter
Bounce back & try again
Do Reactions Fit the Character?
A hardened criminal character isn’t going to ask for help or have himself a weepy moment. A skittish, shy teen isn’t about to rant and rave in the middle of the school, and I doubt a Kindergarten teacher would whip out her AK-47 to get her rage on. These things don’t belong in their Emotional Range.
Who our characters are at their core–their values, their sense of self, their confidence levels and insecurities–dictate how they behave. The hardened criminal is gonna get himself some revenge. The timid teen might blame himself or simply retreat inward. Our Kindergarten teacher would rethink the situation and maybe ask for help. Or jump back in because of the try, try again conditioning she promotes in the classroom. These reactions fit their personality types and so are believable to the reader.
Responses to frustration must evolve as the stakes raise, but stay within a logical range. Just like a thermometer, a character’s reactions become more and more extreme as the novel progresses until the frustration causes them to explode. But, depending on the character, that explosion will come across differently. The teen might grow frustrated enough to break his silence and open up about what’s happening. The criminal may become so blinded by revenge that he takes ludicrous risks, putting his freedom in peril. The teacher could sweep everything off her desk or even quit her job. In each case, the reaction is extreme, but remains believable because it stays inside that character’s Emotional Range.
So the next time you’re frustrated as a writer, sit your butt in front of the keyboard and write. Pass it on to your characters and your book will thank you for it. 🙂
photo credit: Melissa O’Donohue via photopin cc
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.