Stages of Misfortune
by Jason Black
Emotionally credible reactions are key in creating believable characters. There’s nothing worse than a book that is otherwise well written except that the characters don’t react like real people. Yet, writers who are still honing their craft often have difficulty giving their characters realistic human emotions.
Fortunately, there is a roadmap for doing this. It comes from psychology, and is called The Five Stages of Grief. Writers should think of it as The Five Stages of Misfortune because the roadmap holds for misfortunes of all kinds. Believable characters come from incorporating it into our thinking and applying it everywhere.
The Five Stages of Misfortune are a predictable set of emotional responses to tragedies of any kind, large or small. Bad news, unexpected events, unpleasant surprises, anything like that should trigger a five stage response. These stages chart the path your character takes in processing the misfortune in order to move past it.
The individual stages vary widely in their intensity and duration depending on just how bad the misfortune is: The response to stubbing a toe will be shorter and much less intense than the response to losing a job.
Stage one is denial. Your character literally disbelieves that the tragedy is real, even in the face of hard evidence. Nobody welcomes misfortune, so the immediate response is to deny it. This isn’t rational but it is normal.
Stage two is anger. Your character expresses ire at recognizing that the misfortune has happened at all, or that it has happened to them personally.
Stage three is bargaining. Your character's natural inclination is to strike a deal with whatever authority figure seems to be relevant to the misfortune--God, a physician, an insurance adjuster. For minor misfortunes you may skip this step; trying to bargain your way out of a stubbed toe is obviously silly. But for big ones your character should try to bargain the misfortune away. This too is not rational but it is normal. Also, it never works.
Stage four is depression. When denial fails, when anger burns itself out and bargaining flops, depression sets in. This can be sadness, self-pity, despair, or even full clinical depression. Match your character's response to the degree of misfortune.
Stage five is acceptance. Your character accepts the tragedy and moves on. Your character doesn't have to be happy about the tragedy, but can now cope with it. This un-blocks the character from action, so show acceptance through actions the character couldn't previously take.
That’s your roadmap. Whenever your characters are faced with misfortunes of any scope, readers want signs of those stages or they have an awfully hard time believing in your characters as real people.
You need not show each stage in great detail, but readers at least need a hint that your characters react like human beings to whatever misfortunes you throw at them.
You can apply this roadmap at all scales. At one extreme, you could write a five-book epic about a character coming to terms with a true tragedy, devoting a whole novel to each stage. At the other extreme, the whole five-stage drama can flash by in a paragraph for misfortunes that are merely inconvenient to the character’s life.
Depending on the situation, you have a lot of leeway with the five stages. Sometimes they come in order, sometimes they overlap. Sometimes you can even skip a stage. But by and large, we should see hints of all five.
Here's that stubbed toe as an example of how to show the five stages even in a very brief space. Here, Jack is rushing to leave for work in the morning. The stages are noted in brackets where they occur:
Jack shoved his keys in his pocket and snaked out the half-open front door, ramming his foot into the door frame as he passed through. "No," [denial] Jack yelled [anger] as he stumbled to the ground. He clutched at his foot, as any hope of making the bus on time evaporated. If I'm late again this week, Jack thought, Terry will kick me to the curb. The very idea of job-hunting in this economy settled like a lump in Jack's gut. [depression] He pushed himself back up to his feet, wincing as he put weight on the stubbed toe. I guess that's what I get for rushing, [acceptance] Jack thought as he hobbled towards the bus stop.
It’s not a long paragraph, but it has a full emotional arc. The misfortune is very simple: some momentary pain and an interruption to Jack's morning commute. It’s so simple it doesn't even need the bargaining stage, but it still demands a credible emotional response because for Jack the stakes are high. He might lose his job. That's what the stages give you.
Finally, don't shortchange the acceptance stage. Acceptance is not only emotionally realistic, but it serves an utterly critical dramatic role. As I wrote in my article last November, characters must act or readers won't root for them. Acceptance not only un-blocks the character from action, but makes that action emotionally believable as well. In the example Jack tries to make the bus anyway—we see him take action—even though he knows he probably won't make it. At least he's trying. Readers can root for that.
As you write, and especially as you edit, consider the misfortunes in your story and ask yourself whether you have shown the Five Stages of Misfortune in every case.
Jason Black is a freelance book editor who actively blogs about character development. He recently appeared as a book doctor at the 2009 PNWA Summer Writers Conference. To learn more about Jason, visit his website at www.PlotToPunctuation.com