3 Steps to Taking Your Character Further and Deeper With…Anger?

We all know how hard it is to write emotion: understanding what a character is feeling exactly, and to what degree, and then showing it to readers. And of course, that’s just the tip of the challenge. What makes it truly difficult is that whatever body language, thoughts and actions we use MUST be ones that fit each individual’s personality seamlessly.

Emotional description is not one size fits all. This means that while Kara might throw a mug at the head of her deadbeat husband as he wanders in at six am loaded to the gills, Barbara will not. Her anger is a slow simmer that lasts, displayed through burnt toast and undercooked eggs, of phone messages that are not passed on, of leaving the gas tank near empty at every opportunity.

M J Bush is with us today, shedding insight on one of the most volatile emotions of them all: ANGER. On the outside, it seems like such a cardinal, easily identifiable emotion, but there are many forms it can take. Which is right for your character?


The page was crawling with them. Characters of every stripe had gathered to mutiny:

“We’re angry! And you’re not getting our anger right! It’s an outrage!”

“I’d never sulk like that!”

“I’m far more refined than that display.”

“Come down here and I’ll show you the punch I’d throw!”

Do you ever fear being that author, the one getting emotions so wrong on the page that your characters actually come alive and mutiny?

anger2I’m going to be frank for a moment. When I started researching this article, I thought it would be fairly easy to categorize what types of anger came most often to different personalities. I even had some ideas already drawn up.

The idea was to help us write our characters more convincingly. You can show the typical reaction in your character to establish consistency, and then push them into another type of anger that would be just as human, just as true, but showing a different facet of their personality.

But the sheer number of nuances makes that categorization impossible unless I write a book on it. So instead, I’ll try to enable you to figure things out.

Step One: When your character is angry, how does it usually manifest? Here’s a short list of possibilities:






































Remember, it’s nuances we’re looking for here. Every word has its own meaning. Ire is tightly controlled. Rage is out of control. Cranky is a passing mood based on self; grouchy is a bit more lasting and focused on others.

It’s fine to have a few “normal” types of anger. Your character should have multiple facets.

Step Two: Now, how can you push them to react with a different anger? What would take them further? What would make a certified hothead react with sullenness or barely registered annoyance?

It’s a hard-hitting tactic to make your readers rally behind a character or commiserate with him. Consider this line from The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss:

There are three things all wise men fear: the sea in storm, a night with no moon, and the anger of a gentle man.

The contrast between the normal gentleness and the fear-inducing anger is memorable. It can make a reader want to cheer for him standing up to whatever outrage forced him to abandon his gentleness.

For another example, consider a sensitive soul that has long used irritability to protect and isolate himself. Vex him with a puzzle, a character he can’t understand, especially if he’s used to labeling people, and he’ll have to move out of his isolated comfort zone to interact.

The bottom line is this: get your character to act “out of character” in a way that isn’t actually out of character when the motives are examined. It’s good for the story and the characterization.

Step Three: Figure out how he’ll react after the anger has faded. Or if it does at all.

How does it change him, even if he doesn’t stay angry? What emotions does he go through? How do the other characters react? How does it change the relationships?

Does he learn a lesson, or something about himself?

Anger Tells a Story All its Own. Go Use It.

Don’t worry about your characters staging a mutiny. Just make sure you give them solid reasons to act the way they do, and then have them react to how they acted.

You’ve got a good head on your shoulders. You can do this. Here are the steps once more:

Identify his normal anger.

Figure out how to push him beyond that.

And show him reacting to that difference.

It goes for guys and girls, protagonists, antagonists, and supporting characters. You can apply it to any character the story calls for.

Because that’s what it’s all about:

Your story.

MJMJ Bush is The Analytical Creative. Her writing advice steps back to take in the whole picture, then dives in to grab the pearls of usable detail. She’s the founder of Writingeekery.com and a full time fiction coach, editor, and writer.

P.S. Take the first step (it’s an easy one!) and tell us what your character’s typical anger is in a comment.



Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Characters, Emotion, Guest Post, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to 3 Steps to Taking Your Character Further and Deeper With…Anger?

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  3. Rebecca says:

    Just took your advice in the story I’m writing and not only has it really worked, it has moved the plot along nicely too! Thanks very much.

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  5. I love this post. One of my critique partners asked if my MC ever got angry. I guess I was a little afraid of using that. This is really helpful to me. Thanks! I’ll be posting the link on my blog.

  6. Marlena H. says:

    My current MC has had a lot of time to learn to hide her emotions (she’s around six hundred years old). Oddly enough she doesn’t seem inclined to hide them very often unless it’s around her former friends (whom she hates, but doesn’t see any way to do away with them) or if the topic is her family (many of whom were slaughtered by said former friends, part of the reason for the hatred). Her former best friend brings out the anger in her the quickest, but hasn’t the slightest clue that my MC hates her (she’s extremely self obsorbed). She keeps things buried and she plots, looking for ways to make things happen her way.

    The former best friend, on the other hand, is very easy with her emotions. She didn’t kill the MC’s family, because she hated her. She did it because she wanted to control things (a lot of other people connected to a certain group have lived or died because she decided it would be so). She’s been working toward a goal to rescue her former lover who dumped her (because she was starting to freak him out) in order to kill him. She does not ever let grudges go until she considers them paid, but you know if she’s mad at you.

  7. Love this post. I am trying to put flesh on the bones of my characters.

    There are three things all wise men fear: the sea in storm, a night with no moon, and the anger of a gentle man.

    I adore this quote and will now look deeper into my shy, gentle hero and hopefully manage to put fear into the characters around him when he gets angry. Although he is only thirteen. i have a challenge ahead of me.

    • MJ Bush says:

      I’m sure you’ll do fine, Kath. You’re aware of the challenge, and that’s half the battle in improving. 🙂

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  9. Will Hahn says:

    Marvelous. One of the most fun challenges with my current MC is that he is so tightly-wound and driven, plus with a level of remove so that you never read how he thinks or feels, thus his anger (which is not uncommon) must be seen through cracks and glimpses to others (every scene with him needs a narrator). Right at this very moment, the start of the sequel to the current tale, he is just landed in a new country and already under arrest through misunderstanding of his motives and general distrust. I’m taking the tale through an interrogation wherein a lord who has never met him before begins to sense this slow, titanic burn of anger, to which the narrator feels he has no right. Slow going, but fun.

    • MJ Bush says:

      Hey Will, I remember you telling me about him in an email. 🙂

      So do you have plans to push him beyond the norm once you’ve established it?

      • Will Hahn says:

        :: grins :: Solemn Judgement does what he wants, MJ, I just watch. But yes, he’s already shown what he’s capable of when pushed past his “norm”, a kind of righteous simmer. It’s not yet clear to the world or him, that there is nothing he cannot do…

  10. Judith Ring says:

    Yes, wonderful, thought-provoking post. My MC swallows her anger until she can’t hold it in any longer, then explodes. Explosion is followed by shame and apologies. As she grows, she learns to express her anger closer to the cause, thereby bypassing the need for explosion.

    Oh, and if she’s very angry at someone, she’ll frequently retreat into a “glass box” – almost like an “out of this world” experience. It’s a shock reaction to the fact that she’s angry and expects to be punished for being angry. This is also changed as she learns to express anger rather than let it build.

    • MJ Bush says:

      It sounds like you’ve done your homework, Judith. That sounds like a really good mix for a series, to give time for each reaction to come out without rushing the pacing. Yum. 🙂

  11. I try and remember that every reaction would come about different from each of my characters. This helps me identify them better and pushes me to dig deeper when I write. Thanks for the tips!!

    • MJ Bush says:

      Traci, you’re so right. Each character having a distinct pattern is part of what makes readers “get” them, too. Then of course, breaking the pattern believably allows the character to grow while keeping things interesting. Thanks for commenting!

  12. Awesome. A timely post. I’m actually writing a out of character arc in the sequel to Into the Realm. In Rise of the Dark Walker, my main character, Carter, has gone from snarking, and explosive temper, to neck lifts, and intimating torture to find his love who’s been abducted.

  13. I’m a non-fiction author, but I use the concept of personal story arcs in my work in personal development. I absolutely love MJ’s work for that. She’s great at showing the logical progression of behavior and story and making sense of complicated nuances.

    I could trace a particularly bizarre true-story with a “character” I know right through this post. In a basic way the character began with very frequent, but lesser expressions of anger, like irritability. When the anger was questioned, sometimes the response was to back-peddle—until the next time. Other times, the response was to ramp up the anger in an attempt to avoid being questioned about the lack of integrity shown through the anger. Over time, consistent challenges to integrity were met with progressively amplified expressions of anger, until there was a loss of rational thought. It was a form of insanity.

    You see… there’s a reason it’s called “madness.”

    Thanks for the great post, MJ. And thanks Angela for hosting great material like this.

  14. Marsar says:

    Thank you so much for this insightful article! It’s given me some food for thought about a particular scene I’m currently working on.

  15. Julie Musil says:

    What a great topic. In my book, the mc usually stays silent when she’s angry. But when pushed, and when someone she loves is in real danger, she’s no longer silent. I definitely had to show the “why” her reactions changed. I think I did that in draft # gazillion.

  16. :Donna Marie says:

    MJ, just as in your previous guest post here, this is a wonderful take/insight on how to approach this! Thank you 😀

  17. Great points. Thanks for making me delve deeper into my characters. A blog to save, for sure!

    • MJ Bush says:

      Thanks, Carol. If you were to look at just one character, what would be the typical anger? Would you share? 🙂

  18. Shutta Crum says:

    To the point! Thanks for getting me to think about anger again. And three steps are about as many as I can hold in my head at one time. HAH!


  19. Sara L. says:

    Ooooh, one of the chapters I worked on this past weekend showed my MC when she was angry! This article was a nice coincidence for that reason. Thanks for another well-written, informative article, MJ!

    My protagonist’s typical anger…. When she’s forced to be in the presence of the character who’s angered her, she keeps her thoughts and opinions (usually scathing or vindictive ones) about that character or their situation to herself. Her body language and tone of voice give her true feelings away, though. Otherwise, she tries to avoid the other character and opts for the silent treatment – once again making it obvious that she’s not happy about something.

    A specific situation toward the end of the story takes the protagonist’s anger one step further. She learns of a secret that one of the other characters has kept from her – and when she learns that secret, her emotions explode. She yells, refuses to listen to reason, even threatens violence against the person. It’s all part of her arc as she learns how to be a more forgiving person and to let go of her painful past, which is the underlying reason for her volatility and vengefulness.

  20. Sheryl Dunn says:

    Although none of my characters in ANGRY ENOUGH TO KILL (to be released in November) cry when they get angry, I do. Go figure!

    I suspect that my character in the next in the series will cry when she’s angry…never thought to use that when I was developing her character, but your article really hit the nail on the head for me. An “eureka” moment!

    P.S. Website being updated.

    • MJ Bush says:

      Sheryl, that’s a perfect example. What do you think you’ll use to take her that far? If that’s a surprise, I won’t pry. 😉

    • Marlena H. says:

      Crying when angry is exactly how I react to anger. I think I was in fifth or sixth grade when I realized that. When I am able to realize that I’m crying despite not being sad, I have to try and extract myself from the situation before I say or do something I regret. Although once I am aware that I’m in this state it’s a whole lot easier to watch my tongue (but my thoughts get pretty scathing), so that helps. It’s nice in a way to have such a “defenseless” physical cue. People read it wrong and I can try and take back control of my situation.

  21. MJ Bush says:

    Thank you for having me again, Angela. You too, Becca. 🙂

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