Good Grief: Setting the Stage for the Five Stages

I love psychology and sociology. They are useful and interesting in life and in fiction. While there is an expansive pool of issues to choose from, I have been thinking a lot about one topic in particular: grief. Grief is the reaction to any great loss — be it a person, place, object, position, etc. It is a trademark of life. Most people, if not all, will experience loss in their lifetime. And everyone deals with it differently.

So how does one write grief? Obviously each person will make grief their own, but some scientists believe that there is a basic grief formula (that will bend and twist as needed for the individual). The Kubler-Ross Model is a cycle made up of five stages that victims of loss tend to go through as they cope with their grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (in that order) are the emotions that make up the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief. Some doctors believe that these stages happen one after another in ascending order, like steps. Other doctors disagree and maintain that the average person is complicated and will go through the five stages (or states) in their own way. Either way, I think I’ve found a consensus. Everyone seems to agree that the five basic emotions are the make up of the common reaction to loss.

Personally, I agree with the more contemporary view that says that the grief cycle is not so much steps or phases as they are states. “Rather than distinct, sequential stages of grief, it may be more accurate to conceptualize proposed stages as multidimensional grief states that evolve and diminish in intensity over time” (Prigerson, Maciejewski). But since “stages” is the more common terminology for this kind of thing, I’ll stick to that.

The Kubler-Ross Five Stages (or States) of Grief in Detail

1. Denial — The refusal to acknowledge the situation. Characters avoid feeling anything relating to their loss — sometimes characters will avoid feeling anything at all. If we refer back to the Johari Window, denial would be everything that you hide from yourself, what you keep inside your blind spot.

2. Anger — This is the point where things start getting complicated. Instead of a void of emotion, there is an explosion of emotion. And often, those emotions will contradict with each other. At losing a loved one, for example, a character might get angry at them but still love them.

Beware that each character will have a different voice. While some will shout their anger out loud, others will bubble up and boil within. Also think about how healthily your character is able to express their anger. Will they channel it through art or therapy or will they act out? Note: Acting out is usually a good fit for a weaker character, who easily gives into pressure. Does your character attack and push his discomfort onto others? Consider your options.

3. Bargaining — Here, your character gets desperate. In seeing that anger does nothing to help the situation, the character will break down and try to think of anything that will get them/it back. The character will believe that maybe if he stops drinking or starts going to church, his wife will come back. After the loss has occurred, it is usually a private process, worked out between the character and his Higher Being – a series of what if’s? will ensue. What if I had been kinder? What if I had worked harder? But other times, particularly before the loss has actually happened, it’s a process that happens directly between the character and his dying love (a job, a relationship, a dying parent, etc). You can see that there is a tinge of denial in this stage when you look at how the character is either convinced that he can stop the loss before it happens or undo what’s already been done.

4. Depression — Given up yet? Denial didn’t make it go away and neither did anger or bargaining.  On feeling abandoned and helpless, a character will retrieve into himself. This is when the character finally breaks down and mourns. Characters finally face the reality of the situation. This stage is the stage most commonly associated with grief. Whenever I hear about someone losing a loved one, I think about how upset they must be.

5. Acceptance — This can take a lifetime to reach. But it is a highly rewarding feeling to finally accept a loss. Sometimes people even walk away from grief feeling like they have bettered themselves through the process. Your character might feel themselves wiser, kinder, or more understanding.

As each day passes, you close your eyes and let your grief slide through your fingers, one rough, cold link after another, until your loss settles deep inside you. It is a give and take between you and your grief, a tension that rolls your emotions back and forth. And at first you are certain that your life is going to capsize and you will drown. Eventually, the grief will ground you and give you stability in troubled times.

Michael Newland on This I Believe

Grief is an obstacle I find very interesting in fiction (and in life). It tests our abilities to cope and establishes who we are under pressure.

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We Can Work It Out: Using Research in Your Fiction

Research is very often a necessary, or at the very least it’s an advisable, step in your writing process. The old adage still holds true that a writer should ‘write what he knows’. But sometimes writers want to explore unfamiliar worlds and so they turn to research.

Recently, I wrote about following your gut. But sometimes research must be done. I don’t mean research about craft (although that too is important). I’m talking about research relating to your plot.

My current WIP is about a girl who struggles with reconnecting with her neglectful father one last time before his death. Although I knew, before I began writing or researching, the basics of what my characters were going to experience, I felt a greater confidence once I had the support of some research behind my writing. There’s always something to be researched, to be double checked. In my case, I wanted to know about how a young girl might deal with grief.

I don’t know that many people who’ve died and I also don’t know that many people who have lost loved ones. So this isn’t really a subject I’m comfortable with (thank you, God). Whenever you feel uneasy about anything you’re writing — look it up. Go to your local library, use the internet, investigate a new setting personally, and/or talk to people who might know more about that subject than you.

For that audience you couldn’t have expected, now you can be sure that you have your facts straight. Sometimes your audience will know more about your character’s type than you and they’ll recognize when you’re depicting your character incorrectly. And if you’re thinking to yourself How could I depict my own creation incorrectly? It’s easier than you think.

Here’s a few tips and suggestions as to how to go about your research.

1. In terms of the internet, don’t be afraid to go beyond Google. Explore! Curiosity will be your greatest guide. Researching through other, specific search engines can be more beneficial to your needs. Here’s an expansive Directory of Open Access Journals. This way, you can feel confident that what you’re writing makes sense. No matter who reads your writing — nobody will find any factual flaws. Are you writing about an American criminal? Here’s a page on outlaws.

2. Research before you write. This way, you won’t feel bogged down by interruptions and your writing will probably come out more fluid.

3. Your research will take the shape of an hourglass. Start with broad questions, focus in on specifics, and then expand again. According to Research Methods Knowledge Base, it’s important to start with general questions and finish with general conclusions, but somewhere in the middle you are discussing and thinking about the mechanics of your topic. This method is geared more towards non-fiction writers, but it’s a technique that can be molded to the needs of fiction writers as well. In my story, for example, I start by asking: How would my MC grieve? Then, as I find out more and more about the subject, I can ask more specific questions like: What does angry grief look like? How are her friends and family affected? As I observe and take notes on everything, I’m able to compile a certain set of knowledge. In my story, I might not use everything, but I now I have a general perspective on the subject.

Do you have any research tips?

Character: Walk in Their Shoes

Atticus Finch knew that “you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them” (I forgot the actual quote, so I sprung this from Sparknotes). You can’t judge someone until you’re privy to all the aspects of their situation, of their life. It’s important to shift perspective in order to gain a better understanding.

I’m working on a character for a short story, who, as of yet, has no flaws, and I’m wondering in what ways can I get to know her? How do I reveal those flaws?

Before the readers, before the writing… how do you get to know your own creation? An important caveat: For those of you who have read Shelley’s Frankenstein, you might remember how Victor Frankenstein became obsessed with creating life. He devoted himself to one thing and poured his soul and all his energy into this. Naturally, he got physically sick, lost contact with his friends and family, and began to lose his mind. You don’t want to get so close to this character that it enraptures your life. An author should have a hold on various perspectives of his/her story and all of its many parts.  Thus, you should have the ability to see both the big picture and the smaller details, but if you’re too close, you might have trouble distancing yourself enough to see your character as your reader would.

So, while still keeping a safe distance, how do you go about fleshing out a character? Is it possible to simultaneously walk in their shoes and be objective? There are different exercises you can use to carefully give your character dimensions.

1. Questionnaires — You can find these easily — online, in books, in class — questionnaires are everywhere.

2. Criminal Interrogation — Charge your character with a crime (you choose whether or not your character is guilty). Play bad cop/good cop and try to prove that they’ve committed said crime by asking a bunch of pressing questions. Overwhelm the character. How does your character react under stress?

3. Fight with a Friend — Another stress exercise for your character. What would happen if your character got into an altercation with his/her closest friend?

4. Psychoanalysis of a Dream — Conjure up any random dream you’d like — the weirder the better. Take your character to see a professional psychoanalyst and let them pick apart your character’s freak dream. Let your creative juices flow freely; let your instincts guide you; work with whatever interpretation you produce (i.e. the disappearing food on the thanksgiving dinner table is your character’s inability to control his/her surroundings). Naturally, when you become privy to your character’s subconscious, you’ll also become privy to his/her true feelings, desires, and fears.

5. Tarot cards — This is a cool idea. I recently saw it on Write to Done, but it appears on other sites as well. This method is especially nifty when you don’t know much about character or when you want to know their future.

6. Compare and Contrast: Buddy for a Day — For one day, have your character follow you around. Whatever happens — compare/contrast it to what your character would do or feel in that situation. You’re creating a real life scenario to see how your character would behave and/or think in a less action filled, plot-driven circumstance.  Comparing/contrasting is a tool that might allow you to get a better understanding of the possible causes and effects of these behaviors and thoughts. You’re natural instinct isn’t to analyze your own actions, but when creating another life, it’s handy to know the ins and outs. Another method of ‘Buddy for a Day’ is for you to follow your character around. What does a day in the life of your character look like?