People’s rage often starts with something small
There are a lot of things writers do wrong when portraying an angry character. They have somebody blow up suddenly, without warning, or they wait until the person has a justifiable reason and lashes out at the correct and exact target of her or his ire.
Anger always has at least one trigger, but that is not often where we focus. Sometimes anger starts with something small and refocuses on some long-standing injustice or betrayal we’ve been repressing. For example, as a writer, I often receive rejection emails on my submitted work. Especially when I’ve put a lot more hope into a particular submission, the rejection frustrates me, and that can turn into anger at some perceived wrong, even though nothing was technically wrong, or maybe not even unfair. I have no idea what other factors figured into their rejection. Maybe they already accepted a story with a similar setting or theme. Maybe they needed more humor to balance the mix, and mine wasn’t funny. The fact that I don’t know the reason makes my brain think there was none, and that turns on the hormones that make me feel angry. I assume I’ve been treated unfairly or capriciously.
And I may not even register that disappointment consciously. I might blow it off casually and focus on the next submission to another publisher. But the hormone flush is still there, and my brain starts looking for another focus, so I can lash out and end the episode. I may go for a long-standing one and seethe for a while about all the cowardly and self-centered guys I’ve dated. I may go for a walk and pick out targets randomly, like the guy who spit on the sidewalk, the woman who threw trash out of her car into the street, the driver who ran a red light, or even the tourists blocking the sidewalk and/or going too slow.
People who know they have problems with angry outbursts train themselves to suppress them. A frequent one is quick meditations that involve counting or breaths. They manage to end the episode without lashing out, returning their biochemistry to normal in a more socially acceptable way.
So when writing a scene in which a character gets angry, I try to include bits of the stress or buildup. If there are several characters in a scene in which all feel anger, I make sure the one who’s most wound up spouts off about it first. In a group where anger is expressed, if all feel it, they feed on each other’s frustration. In a group where the angry person is in the minority, the reactions may vary from ignoring to comforting to escaping.
And I tend to think of anger as having a starting point and a point of expression that often have very little in common except a shared feeling of being wronged.
This is the first in a short series on portraying various emotions in fiction. Check back next week for “Writing Love,” and check out a whole bunch of previous posts on writing techniques from past weeks.