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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Character: Come to My Johari Window

Listening to: Come to My Window by Melissa Etheridge

BACKGROUND

I recently discovered a very interesting method for developing character. The Johari Window is a “cognitive psychological tool”, originally invented to improve understanding between self and self, and self and others. I got to researching and found out that the Johari Window is mostly used by businesses who want to encourage better communication between their employees. They set up these workshops where employees have the opportunity to finally build a rapport with long-time office strangers.

The Johari Window has four slots, the open self or arena, the blind self, the hidden or facade self, and the unknown self.

The arena is what is openly known about the person. Depending on the relationship, this area can include anything from hair color (the obvious basics) to feelings, emotions, desires, and fears (what you might share with a friend). If the relationship has just begun, or if the relationship has yet to exist, then this area will remain very small. Even something as artificial as small talk can expand this space.

The blind spot is what you know about me that I have yet to find out. This might be something you don’t tell me on purpose, because you’re trying to protect me or because you’re trying to hurt me; this might be something that I’m in denial about or maybe it’s a delusion that no one can talk me out of. Either way, the blind spot are is not an effective or productive space.

The hidden self, or Facade area, is the space where all my secrets stay. Particularly discreet people will have a larger hidden space than others, just as people who lack boundaries will have an especially small hidden area. The hidden area should not be too big or too small. Some secrets are healthy, while others, when kept hidden buried, can be damaging to the self or to the relationship.

The unknown self contains that which is completely hidden, from everyone. These can be both psychological and physical. Physically, it could be a skill, like fast running, or an illness, like cancer, which I am unaware of. However, more often than not, it is psychological. These can range from capabilities or talents I don’t know that I have, traumas I refuse to surface, fears I don’t want to face, subconscious feelings, or ingrained traits and attitudes from childhood.

IN TERMS OF WRITING

So! How does all this information connect back to fiction? The following is an analysis of a Fitzgerald short as it relates to the Johari Window.

Most, if not all, fiction is built around a main character or a group of main characters with an objective. Whether they are aware of their goals, whether they succeed or fail — these are choices that each writer will make for himself. Over the course of the story, the character will try, probably more than once, to get what he/she wants/needs. An author can use the Johari Window to develop the characters and their relationships to themselves and to each other. With time and through action, the Johari Window will change and each pane will increase or decrease in size.

As an example, let’s look at Bernice Bobs Her Hair by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The story begins with Bernice, the story’s protagonist, feeling awkward and forlorn while visiting her shallow cousin Marjorie. Fitzgerald begins with an opening where the characters are unfamiliar with each other. If we were to apply Johari’s Window to the first pages of this story, the “open area” would be minuscule because Marjorie knows little about Bernice, except that she is a scrupulous young girl, and Bernice knows little about Marjorie, except that she has a lot of friends.

Bernice’s objective is to feel like she’s part of the crowd, part of the “vast circle of youth“. At first she attempts to become one of the crew by being polite (in other words, by being herself). But this plan quickly falls apart. That night, she overhears Marjorie explaining to a family member how “a little cheap popularity” is of such paramount importance, especially to an eighteen year old girl. Bernice confronts her cousin later on about their opposing views. Fitzgerald pushes the two rival girls together, making for a collision which results in a furiously tense altercation. While  in the heat of the argument, Bernice and Marjorie both begin to take what belonged to their hidden areas and use it to fill their open areas. That is to say, they let guards down while amidst great emotion and expand their open areas by disclosing relevant hidden feelings.

After some fighting, Bernice begins to feel defeated and starts taking Marjorie’s advice. It is important to note that Bernice probably would not have changed her ways if it weren’t for this external force pushing her. I have read stories where the main character makes an internal shift suddenly and without any apparent cause. These stories feel awkward and forced and the reader, confused, is left to wonder why the character did what he/she did and felt the way he/she felt. Everything happens for a reason, particularly in fiction.

But back to Bernice. Slowly, the morals which Bernice’s mother imbued on her are swept away. Marjorie blows in with her tempting superficiality and re-creates Bernice. Marjorie teaches her naive cousin the ways of a shallow and effortless flirt. During these lessons, Bernice is becoming increasingly aware of that which was previously in her blind spot. To push the open area into the blind spot space, the character must actively listen to others and be open to feedback. Now, prepared with new and different weaponry, Bernice walks back into Marjorie’s social scene. An interesting twist: Bernice learns all too quickly how to hog attention and, soon becomes Marjorie’s replacement, Marjorie’s competition. By the end of the story, Bernice is the talk of the town. But in her greed to be the ultimate center of attention, she goes mad — ruining her own image and that of her cousin. The story’s conclusion reveals to the reader, Bernice, Marjorie, and possibly even to Fitzgerald how monstrous Bernice could be. Her potential is surfaced and her unknown area is made smaller.

Sometimes our stories grow automatically and our writer’s sixth sense guides us through its development. But sometimes we need directions which is why the Johari Window is so damn useful.

Ready for Press?

(Image: Courtesy of BamaWester on Flickr)

So you say you’re all done with your manuscript. You’ve read it, proofed it, rewritten it, gotten critiques, rewritten it again, and now it’s finally finished. But how can you be sure that it’s ready to be sent out to publishers? What do the publishers want and what are the readers looking for?

Donald Maass of Writer Unboxed, one of my favorite blogs, posted an entry on what makes for a popular manuscript. The entry took apart the findings of a New York Times article, “Will You be E-mailing this Column?”, which, in turn, took apart the findings of a University of Pennsylvania study. The purpose of the study was to figure out what made popular NYT articles so contagious. For six months, UPenn studied frequently e-mailed articles, breaking them down into categories and tagging articles for having qualities like being surprising or providing practical value.

So what makes writing travel?

1. Emotional Writing: According to the studies, sharing emotional writing has three important effects. 1) “people can clarify that ambiguity and gain deeper understanding of how they feel” 2) “to help them cope or reduce feelings of dissonance” and 3) “can strengthen social bonds and deepen social connections”

2. Be Positive: Happy endings, anyone? Donald Maass seems to have predicted this one. But I disagree. I love a sad ending. I think struggles are beautiful. The study is in a tug of war about this one. They say that although it seems like people enjoy distributing happiness, more research needs to be done on the subject.

3. Awe Inspiring: When your writing successfully expresses something grand, your readers will feel like they a part of something much larger than themselves. The study defines awe as a feeling of “self-transcendence” and explains that when we are faced with something vast, either literally or figuratively (grand canyon or God, respectively), we have the nature urge to share that experience.

4. Useful Information: Does your fiction stock useful information? Look out how well Malcolm Gladwell turned out. But, it doesn’t necessarily have to be facts and figures. Very often, with good literature, authors weave in important life advice. “Because useful information has social exchange value, sharing it may encourage reciprocity or be driven by people’s desire to look good or self-enhance.”

5. Surprise!: This is why nobody likes a spoiler. Twists and shockers are fun. Just as suspense in a story will keep us going, surprises, too, will light a fire of interest. As the study points out, things that are surprising are generally interesting and everybody wants to be that guy/girl at the office who knows something out of the ordinary.

There are many ways to push your writing forward, to spread the word, to create social contagion. These are five tips, probably five out of a million, on how to do so. Now, before I end this post, I do want to say that you shouldn’t change your writing just for the people. If you’re not comfortable with what you’re sending out, don’t bother. As Cyril Connolly said (whoever that is), “Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self“.

Character: On this Assembly, Making an Entrance Comes First

A story is made up of an assembly line of decisions. With time and multiple revisions, you’ll work with, add, and subtract many pieces to your story. The process changes with the writer. For me, getting comfortable with my plot and my characters is of paramount importance. Usually that happens before I even begin writing. Those are the first decisions I make — what color hair my character will have, what goals they set for themselves, what their backgrounds look like, and so forth. Only after that can I begin to write.

I’m currently working on this project that I assigned myself. The hunt: Find a story I don’t like, but with a great deal of potential. The task: Rewrite said story. It’s a lengthy and time-sucking exercise to distract me from my main work-in-progress which, at its half point, hit a road bump and hasn’t been able to recover since.

Since the plot is written out for me and my character studies are almost done, I’m wondering how I could go about introducing my two characters? Right now, I have only two demands. 1) My main character is revealed in the beginning and 2) my supporting character is introduced later on.

I decided I would study, compare, and contrast some character introductions. Get myself inspired. I’m thinking I’ll do three studies. Consider this Story One, Day One:

1. Subtle, On-going, and Nameless:Appetite” by Saïd Sayrafiezade is a short story recently published in the New Yorker that has a greater focus on character than on plot, so I figure it’d be fitting for this study. When plot is less than character, I find it harder to write out a synopsis, so I’ll refrain from doing so here. I recommend reading the story for yourself (word count: 5,995), although I’d stop reading right before the last line.

As much as I enjoyed this story, the last line (the character’s last words) infuriated me. It seemed so out of character. Considering that the story revolves around this character, that’s no small issue. His introduction and his development was coherent, cohesive, co-everything– but the damned last line is such an ugly stain on that story that it makes me wonder if anything can truly be all around wonderful.

But! In spite of the ugliness, it’s still quality writing. The reader never stops learning about the character, which is true of any good story. The beginning is testimony to the character’s misery. He can’t seem to verbalize what he wants and, thus, his demands (if they can even be called demands) aren’t met. As this short story is told in first person, the main character, whose name is never revealed, is the one to explain the cause to this effect. “Somewhere in my past, something had gone wrong for me.” Now, the reader not only knows the character but he knows why the character is who he is. Histories aren’t always necessary, but, now that I think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever run into a history that was pointless either.

The history seems to be the first sign of an old school, straight forward, introductory method. Before that, the character’s voice is weaved into the dialogue and narration, but not actually put forth in an explicit description. There are no adjectives to direct you to how the character feels. Still, the reader knows exactly what’s going on in his head.

The character is introduced through action. His short-lived, unsuccessful conversation with his boss is how we get know him and his reactions. The pressure of the situation exacerbates the character’s nature. We know that under pressure, the main character is unassertive, unsure, and unfocused. Nothing went according to plan — from the position of his feet, “one foot crossed uncomfortably in front of the other”, to the conversation itself, which took an ugly turn when his boss put him on the spot with an unexpected question. The fact that everything went wrong, and would continue to go wrong, refers back to the first sentence, “Things were not going as I had hoped”.

Action and history tell us a great deal about the character. We learn that the main character, twice, turned down opportunities to integrate himself into the world he wanted to belong to. Although he doesn’t seem to be aware of it, it’s that kind of self-destruction that caused his misery.

The supporting character, an anorexic waitress that works at the same restaurant as our main character, is introduced by her relation to the main character. “A few days after I was turned down for I raise, an anorexic waitress started working at the restaurant.” Immediately after that, the author jumps into how the main character feels about her, “She was pretty but had no breasts or ass” is the next sentence. Once again, we learn a little more about the character through his relationship with the world. It’s not about what the main character sees, but how he sees it. What is his perspective?

This story has reminded of one very important rule on character: Everything is relationship. And, so, I’ll end this post with a quote:

“We should approach fictional characters with the same concerns with which we approach people. We need to be alert for how we are to take them, for what we are to make of them, and we need to see how they may reflect our own experience. We need to observe their actions, to listen to what they say and how they say it, to notice how they relate to other characters and how other characters respond to them, especially to what they say about each other. To make inferences about characters, we look for connections, for links and clues to their function and significance in the story. In analyzing a character or character’s relationships, we relate one act, one speech, one physical detail to another until we understand the character.” Robert DiYanni

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?