Frustration: Your Novel’s Best Friend

medium_3161747118You’re thinking that title must be a typo, aren’t you? It isn’t, I promise. 🙂 Frustration is awesome.

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:

Retreat inward
Run from the problem
Try to manipulate/influence
Give up
Get angry
Vent out loud
React with violence
Feel depressed
Lay blame
Seek revenge
Take out anger on others
Berate themselves
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. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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[…] forward7. Frustrate your main character. We did a whole post on this, so I’ll just leave the link.8. Build your vocabulary. This doesn’t mean more words that are bigger. The idea is to use […]

Jessica M
9 years ago

Great post, thanks for this because I’ve quite had it with my story. Now I’ll see how injecting some of that frustration into there livens things up for me! Love the pictures, by the way.

Eve S Nicholson
9 years ago

I love creating the frustration! What fun is a good ending if you aren’t jonesing for it?

Fantastic post Angela. I hope I have given enough frustration to my shy pre-teen. She is stronger than I meant her to be but does have a crying session, so I hope I have balanced it.

Joan Strading
9 years ago

I love this! Not only did I learn I’m eating M&M’s wrong (no one else ever told me they contained the orphan tears of Muses), but I now know what to do with my frustration!!

I’ll offer myself as a beta when the time comes (almost sounds like I’m a human sacrifice LOL). The thesauri have helped my writing in more ways that I can express . . . though I could if I consult the ET (meaning emotional thesaurus, not extra terrestrial, of course). =D

Gail Shepherd
9 years ago

@Stina, that is really funny. I sort of feel like that a lot of the time.

Cynthia Chapman Willis

It’s so true that we try to avoid those nasty feelings of frustration (as if we can). Yet, as writers, we need to tap into these feelings and infuse them into our characters. As always, a fabulous post!

Sara B.
9 years ago

Awesome post! Helpful tips *plus* now I understand why I was inhaling the M&Ms today. Orphan tears. LOVE.

Elle Strauss
9 years ago

Awesome recap here. Keep our characters frustrated but believable. Thanks!

9 years ago

“Frustration is emotional gold.” – I love that. So true!

Rachna Chhabria
9 years ago

I always thought frustration was bad. I like the idea of giving it to our characters. Thanks for turning me into a complete sadist. I am sure my stories will benefit from me torturing my characters.

Sharon K. Mayhew
9 years ago

You are the master! Great post. 😀

Bish Denham
9 years ago

Oh…so THAT’S what I’m supposed to do with it! Thanks Angela.

Cedric J. Sims
9 years ago

I’m really loving these discriptions

Lydia K
9 years ago

So true. We need to tap into that frustration so those pages keep getting turned.

Carrie Butler
9 years ago

Hah! Angela, I love you and your commentary. This made my day. 😀

Debbie Maxwell Allen
9 years ago

Fantastic analysis–you’re absolutely right about the difference between writer frustration and character frustration!


Lisa Gail Green
9 years ago

Ah yes, I suppose torturing your characters provides some form of therapy. Cause MC frustration, lessen your own… It’s like a formula! LOL Great post!

Theresa Milstein
9 years ago

HA! Let’s hope the kindergarten teachers aren’t whipping out AK-47s to get their rage on!

You’re right, we must put our characters through the wringer and give them appropriate responses.

Julie Musil
9 years ago

Thanks so much for this, Angela! And no, it’s not just you who psyches yourself up before opening emails 😀

Angela Ackerman
9 years ago

Thanks everyone! I see this one hit a nerve, and that’s great! Frustration is something I had to learn to embrace because it’s something I naturally try to avoid. But in books, Frustration is the melty center of a warm lava cake. We can’t get enough of it!!

Clarissa, Becca and I are working on it fast and furiously. I really hope we’re within months of being able to launch it, but we want to make sure it really meets a writer’s needs, so we’ll seek out a few test readers beforehand for feedback. I would love to be able to ask you to do this if you’re interested. 🙂

Karen Lange
9 years ago

Yes, I agree with you; frustration is our friend. In this way, anyway! I need to apply this more in my WIP, so I appreciate the thoughts and tips. As always. 🙂

Susan Flett Swiderski
9 years ago

What a super post. Take that lousy rejection frustration and make our characters suffer for it! Cool.

Martha Ramirez
9 years ago

Great post, Angela!

It’s true, a writer’s life is like a roller coaster life:0

Sarah Pearson
9 years ago

This is a great post, I love the list of possible behaviours – there are a couple I hadn’t thought of.

9 years ago

LOL, this is awesome! Take it all out in the writing and make the work stronger. Happiness doesn’t make for good writing!

Matthew MacNish
9 years ago

Great point! I was just thinking about how even as a reader, I seem to have a sick obsession with being frustrated. I happen to love reading books in which things don’t go as I would expect, even stories that piss me off a bit.

Bethany K. Mattingly
9 years ago

I never really thought of my frustration as a good thing, you might have me convinced.

Shannon O'Donnell
9 years ago

Oh my gosh! I think this might be one of my all-time favorite Muse posts. I am working SO HARD on the frustration element of my MS right now–this will be uber-helpful. 🙂

SP Sipal
9 years ago

Love the lobotomized hamster!

And yes, you’re right. While I hate frustration in my own life, I have to dole it out to my characters in force. I think it might be interesting to read about a weepy hardened criminal. That would really present him with a conflict if everyone he tried to do someone in, he couldn’t stop crying! 🙂