Character Emotions, Defence Mechanisms and Change

(or How Your Character Feels Isn’t Really How They Feel so What are You Going to do About it?)

So your angry character is stomping about all over the place with flushed cheeks, kicking chihuahuas and swearing more than Jo and Sarah from Writers’ HQ. Your sad character is crying and staring into space after writing poetry in a leather-bound journal about autumn leaves falling from trees. No? No. So what the heck is your character actually feeling, how will that show itself, why is it not straightforward, how will you let the reader know what on earth is going on, and how can you create realistic change in how your character experiences and expresses emotions by the end of the story?

If you spend a few minutes watching babies react to something new like an opera or lemon sorbet, you can see their emotional world play out on their faces, fluidly shifting from one feeling to another. They haven’t yet been taught about what is Not Acceptable.

Gif of a baby in a playpen laughing before suddenly reacting to something off-camera with utter shock.

Your characters – whether they realise it or not – will have rules about what is Not Acceptable to feel and show in different contexts.

There are core emotions which are automatic and your character has no control over. Bodily changes are observable such as the flushed face of anger as blood zips around the body in ‘fight or flight’ mode or the turned down features of disgust. However, it is worth considering two aspects about how your characters perceives and shows their emotions:

  1. What emotions (in what particular contexts) are they aware of but try to push away or hide?
  2. What emotions are they so used to pushing down that they have NO IDEA that is what they feel – in other words it remains unconscious and quickly turns into something else?

(And of course WHY is the golden question – what is it about this character’s upbringing, school experience, sociocultural messages, and so on that have shaped what is Not Acceptable).

It’s a useful distinction whether you’re writing in first person or third because you can let the reader in to the secret internal world of the character – even those things outside the character’s awareness.

Gif of Benedict Snickerdoodle in Sherlock saying

Let’s think of an example and work it through.

Your character is at a theme park with old school friends for a reunion. An ex-boyfriend makes fun of how she used to be scared of the big rides, mimicking her intense distress when she was a teen to everyone else. They all laugh.

Does your character:

  1. Notice a surge of heat from the stomach upwards as healthy anger. This helps her to put in boundaries and tell the whole group that they may not realise but it was truly scary to her at fourteen after a traumatic experience, and it hurts her feelings that they laugh about it now. (Taught rule: be open with feelings and explain when people hurt you so things can be repaired).
  2. Notice a surge of heat from the stomach upwards as anger. She wants to keep the peace so laughs it off, taking off her jacket to help cool her back down. (Taught rule: put other people’s needs first or they’ll reject you).
  3. Notice a strange feeling in her stomach and thinks she must need the toilet. Shortness of breath starts to worry her as she feels like she can’t get enough air. She tells herself she is stupid and embarrassing to her friends. (Taught rule: anger is dangerous and selfish. She is no longer even aware of it. She turns the anger against herself without realising it).

As you can see, by the third version, this character has masked and pushed away for so long that she has lost connection with the core emotion, in this case anger. However, it will still be triggered in her body when certain boundaries are crossed.

You can consider specific scenes in your story where an emotion would be triggered for your character. If she realises what the feeling is, what has she learnt to do? You can show your reader this as behaviour. Make sure it follows directly from the trigger event. If your character doesn’t realise the true feeling, then you have the chance to allow the reader to read between the lines of cause and effect –EMOTION-INDUCING EXPERIENCE leads to AVOIDANCE or BLAME SOMEONE ELSE or KICK THE DOG INSTEAD or FEEL SUDDENLY TIRED AND NUMB or REINVENT WHAT HAPPENED SO IT DOESN’T FEEL PAINFUL. These behaviours are defence mechanisms. They’re not carefully chosen plans but automatic, unconscious strategies that stop the original feeling rising to or staying at the level of conscious awareness.

Gif of Hades from Disney's Hercules screaming with his whole head engulfed in bright orange flame before reducing to a small blue flame as he says

What does your character do INSTEAD of feeling a specific emotion? You can get really creative with these and allow your reader to follow the breadcrumbs that link your character’s past experience and current behaviour to particular emotional triggers. This isn’t universal. For example a character may have been taught that anger is fine as it’s manly, but sadness is Not Allowed. Or that joy is fine when you are being productive but is self-absorbed and Not Allowed if it’s felt doing something ‘unworthy’ like a hobby.

What does this have to do with character arc and change? Over the course of your story, you have the chance for repeated, subtle episodes of a Not Allowed feeling to be triggered and perhaps to move into awareness or become less defended against. This is one way that you can show believable change over time – your character may resist and push down but little by little the Not Allowed emotion rises until she can acknowledge it, feel it, and then take a different course of action than the past stuck patterns.

Stephanie Carty

Stephanie Carty

Stephanie Carty is a writer, NHS Consultant Clinical Psychologist and trainer in Gloucestershire, UK. Her short fiction is widely published. She has been shortlisted for many competitions including the Bristol Short Story Prize, Aesthetica Creative Writing Award and Bridport Prize. Her novella-in-flash Three Sisters of Stone won Best Novella in the Saboteur Awards. She is represented by Curtis Brown. Her writers’ craft book Inside Fictional Minds: Tips from Psychology for Creating Characters will be published by Ad Hoc Fiction, summer 2021.

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