Writing Angry?

Alexandra Sokoloff’s blog often has interesting stuff on it. I don’t always agree, but it’s generally food for thought.

Case in point, the recent entry entitled “Write about what makes you angry“.

My take on it: what makes writing involving and meaningful, is that the author writes about things they feel deeply about. Anger is one way to feel deeply, but it’s far from the only way, so if you focus on anger, you’re limiting yourself.

Basically the same set of things make any decent person angry. As a result, certain topics — child sexual abuse, in particular — are seriously overdone. Anytime someone wants to depict a villain, the cause du jour springs to mind. The way you show they’re evil is that they’re a child abuser. A terrorist. A Nazi, if you go back far enough. I like my villains to be evil in complex and creative ways. If I see one more scheming CEO I think I’ll scream.

(My wife has learned that if she hears screams, she generally should respond, “It’s just a book, dear. Breathe.”)

A book that has a moral cause to champion, also is at serious risk of becoming a polemic. Rotten things happening to your characters is pretty essential, and they could be some of the things that make you angry. Getting out of or recovering from such a situation, or battling the people who caused it, could be an important part of the story. But if, in your mind, your enslaved protagonist a symbol for all slaves, you’re likely to lose some of that personal aspect of the story that brings it to life. They’re a person in a predicament. Their problems are their problems, not everybody else’s.

Write about what makes you angry. But also write about what you fear (actually they’re likely to be the same things, but fear is the truer emotion). Write about what puts you in awe, what you love, what you can’t make up your mind whether is good or bad.


Writing Angry? — 4 Comments

  1. Hi Tyler. I agree with what you’ve said. It is very easy to grab onto the villain du jour and instantiate them as the Antagonist in the story. You get instant reader identification and emotional resonance.

    Unfortunately, it is a quite shallow technique.

    As a challenge, consider giving that hated characteristic to your Protagonist. I know it makes you cringe. But, think of the potential conflicts within the character and between the character and their environment (society). Few of us beginners could probably get away with that and still have a Protagonist the readers could identify with and root for–but what opportunities that could present! (If you want an extremely successful example, think of The Godfather. Even the “good” guys are mobsters with plenty of blood on their hands.)

    Authors could also challenge themselves in their character design by making the Antagonist a person of great moral goodness–at least in some areas of their life. Don’t make the good part of them a facade, make who they really are.

    Wouldn’t that make for a much more interesting Antagonist?

    • I do like that idea, Pat.

      I’ve noticed actually a swathe of films and TV shows recently that uses traditional “bad guys” as protagonists — films where the traditional role of good and evil are reversed. They focus on mobsters, mad scientists, and other traditional villains in the hero role. I love these films. All my favorite heroes tend to be “bad guys.”

      I loved Snape from Harry Potter; so much complexity and angst. And the audience responded too. Snape was the favorite character of most adults… A large number of grownup readers of the Potterverse wanted to be in Slytherin.

      There are kids who like to dress up as Darth Vader, not just because he was a powerful, competent badass, but also because he was complicated and had feelings for his son Luke. (And maybe because everyone fell in love with the voice of James Earl Jones.)

      If you want to go back farther for bad guys as heroes, read Milton’s Paradise Lost — at least the parts with Satan in them. I read that in high school, and fell in love with Milton’s emotionally torn Satan. I loved it so much that I recited one of his speeches from memory in a High School talent show, and got told by my fellow students: “Wow, I never thought you would make such a great Satan.”

      I also get bored with standard bad guys who are child molesters or Nazis or serial killers (though I have to admit that Silence of the Lambs made its villain oddly compelling.) I want different and interesting villains that want to do what is *right*. I want the path to Hell to be paved with evil acts done for the sake of the greater good.

      And Andre, you are not alone at screaming at books that give us the same boring villains over and over again. I think that book lovers need sound proof walls to protect their spouses and families from our shrieks of outrage.


  2. Andre, I’m with you: Weary of having the most common of human “hates” turn up in fiction so many times that I cannot bear to read more of them. It’s especially maddening to me when such acts are not actually relevant to the plot but are used up front purely to establish that the villain is REALLY REALLY EEEEVIL, YOU GUYS.

    It’s one reason I find it increasingly difficult to read crime fiction or watch crime shows. My reaction is so often a cringe and a “Oh, god, not another story that opens with a dead or brutalized woman or child.” I hate rape and child abuse; what decent person doesn’t? But I don’t want to steep myself in it every single time I turn on a crime drama. There are other crimes. Why does it always have to be a young woman’s body dumped headless in a ditch?

    And some of our greatest passions as human beings are the things we want to fight FOR, not the things we want to fight AGAINST. Things we love, not things we hate. Things we want to create.

    Granted, writing about things we want to save or fight for does imply a hate. But the focus is different. I’d rather, for example, read a book in which the protagonist is struggling to rehabilitate a dog rescued from a fighting pit…than one in which we see repeated scenes OF the dog-fighting pit to show how reprehensible the villain is.

  3. All good stuff here. Perhaps a better idea than “Write about what makes you angry” is simply, “write about what you feel passionate about.” Hate is easy, because it’s visceral. We can easily locate and get in touch with what we hate. Does anyone really, truly hate “big business tycoons?” OK, maybe the Unibomber, does. But for the rest of us, corporations are just a big, impersonal, easy target. It’s like hating Nazis in the 40s. Blah, blah, blah. Now, look at something you “hate.” Deconstruct it to find what is behind or underneath your hatred. The answer is almost always something you love. The thing you “hate” harms or puts at risk the thing you love or care deeply about, and that’s why you “hate” it.

    This might be a good writing exercise: think of Jaye’s exercise in writing about a character without mentioning any physical details. This time, think about something you “hate,” deconstruct it to find the core thing you love, and write about that without ever mentioning the thing you “hate.” What makes that cherished thing cherished? What (besides the initial thing you hate) puts that beloved thing at risk? What could rob you (or the world) of that thing you love? I suspect you’ll find a very compelling story there.