Character Development: Make Them Angry

Photo credit: joshjanssen on Flickr
You probably don't need me to tell you that a story without emotion isn't a story worth reading. Emotion is an integral part of who we are as humans—everything from sadness to excitement, happiness to fear, influences who we are and changes the way we experience our everyday lives.

Humans are emotional, and in order to ensure that our stories are interesting and our readers connect with our characters, our characters must be emotional as well. Emotions are a key part of character development, and I'd like to focus on one of my favorites to write: anger.

Anger is an interesting emotion—it fuels us with a particular type of energy that demands action, and it can affect characters in many different ways. For some, it clouds judgment and incites violence, for others it inspires an unquenchable motivation, and still for others it pushes them into deep, dark places. I like to make my characters angry for a couple reasons:

  • It's a particularly strong and passionate emotion. You can be a little sad (disappointment), slightly excited (anticipation), sort of afraid (nervous) and kind of happy (optimistic). It’s not often, however, that you feel slightly angry. Anger demands energy and passion in a way that many other emotions don't, and for that reason alone it can be a fantastic tool for character development and plot progression. 

  • It tests a character's self-control. Anger often makes us want to do things we normally wouldn't even consider doing. Whether or not our characters act on these impulses truly tests the bounds of their self-control and ability to think clearly under times of high stress. 

  • It often fuels action. This is closely tied to the last point, but depending on a character's level of self-control, anger can often fuel action—and usually not the kind of action that you look back on proudly, which makes for great plot. 

  • It reveals quite a bit about the affected character. One of the many reasons I believe strong emotions like anger are closely linked to character development is because how they react to the emotion and what causes the emotion speaks volumes about the character. What makes your characters angry? Is it something personal, like betrayal, or something more global, like injustice? Knowing what triggers these powerful emotions is absolutely essential to effective character development. 

Making your characters angry is a fantastic way to move the plot forward, push your characters into making mistakes, develop them, and (not the least of which) make for some interesting scenes. Once you've figured out how to set your characters off, make sure you build opportunities into your plot to infuriate them. Your plot will thank you.

How do you use character anger in your writing?


Khai said...

Looking back at very early drafts of my novel I can see that I clearly lacked the skills to convey anger without resorting to exclamation marks. I've also seen this in other people's writing around the blogosphere in first chapter critique posts.

Perhaps it is easy to slip into talking head mode when conveying anger because we get caught in the moment? One tip is to step back from your WiP and think about the body language of the 'angry' person and the reactions from surrounding characters. When used well, silence can also be a powerful tool at your disposal.

Your question is difficult to answer without giving examples. My novel is told through the viewpoint of two sisters (depending on chapter) who unsurprisingly irritate one another. This irritation results from and is expressed by what they do or neglect to do, and what they say to one another. A highly tense scene results in one slapping the other, but I have been careful not to repeat this in order to keep things fresh. Also, the lingering threat of 'angering' certain characters can be useful in raising tension. It has the reader wondering if the protagonist/s will get caught and punished.

Robin Red said...

Wow, this really opened my eyes to angrier moments in my WIPs. I need to step up my game.

Ava Jae said...

You make some really fantastic points here, Khai. Conveying emotion is certainly much more than exclamation points (or any other punctuation, for that matter) or stating that characters are upset--body language, actions (or lack thereof), thoughts and dialogue should all reflect how they're feeling.

Judging by the description of your example, I'd say it sounds like you have a pretty great grasp on both angering your characters and showing their anger effectively. You're also entirely right about anger being used to raise tension--another fantastic point.

Thanks for such a thoughtful comment, Khai!

Ava Jae said...

Yes! I love making my characters argue. Getting them to fight not only reveals a lot about themselves (people tend not to censor themselves when they're angry), but as you said, it can make for great plot stuffs. :)

Renee Benson said...

I often use anger as you pointed out in your fourth bullet. Depending on the situation and how the character behaves in reaction the writer can reveal much about the character. Keeping in mind what the writer is trying to reveal, what would have to happen to trigger anger? As you mentioned, anger is a form of passion and passion is hard to contain, but sometimes our characters, much like real life, must refrain from showing anger, this, too, can reveal much about the character as well as making our character appear realistic. Silence in anger can be extremely powerful, as Khai mentioned in the comments, and in the silence we are forced to focus on body language, another fantastic way at expressing realistic anger.

Ava Jae said...

Yes! That's a fantastic point about silence and body language. You're absolutely right that sometimes whether a character chooses to express or suppress an emotion can speak oceans in itself.

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