The First Stage of Surprise: Denial

by Jason Black

October 2013

Why Do We Deny?

What's behind the human instinct to deny surprising news? Google it and you'll find lots of answers.

Some are facile: denial is easier than facing difficult truths. Maybe in the short term. But in the long run, denial just makes problems harder and consequences worse. That's not easier.

Some are practical: denial gives us time to adjust to bad news. Maybe, but denial is just the first stage of a whole process of adjusting to surprising news; if the purpose of denial was adjustment, we wouldn't have the other stages.

Some are psychological: bad news incites a conflict with our wishes or beliefs. Conflicts then trigger our defense mechanisms, and the defense against information is to believe the opposite. Maybe, but that doesn't explain why we experience denial, however briefly, towards good news that matches our wishes.

None of them are entirely satisfactory. Worse, they don't help us know how and when to apply denial in our stories.

My theory is that we experience denial because our brains are really good at pattern matching. And after living on this planet for long enough, we all become experts at understanding how this whole life thing works. We're not surprised when people stop at red lights. We understand that's how life works here. Almost everything that happens to us becomes a further example of experiences fitting with our understanding of the world. The pattern is "what just happened matches how I understand things."

But surprises, by definition, don't match our prior understanding. They don't fit the pattern. And that, well, that's just not normal. The better we are at the game of life, the less surprises us. Which means the surprise, whatever it is, it's probably wrong. It's a safer bet that we just misheard, or mis-saw. Better double-check before believing it!

When someone runs a red light, we are surprised. It breaks the pattern. We do a double-take, and may even mutter our denial: "I can't believe that guy just did that!" Denial is just our response when surprises fly in the face of our lifelong experience of understanding ever-better how the world works.

Normal Denial

A normal adult character of ordinary intelligence, when in familiar settings, should experience denial in the face of good or bad surprises. It's just their pattern matching circuitry saying "hey, wait a minute!"

For good news or happy surprises, denial passes quickly. Most of us are quite eager to adjust our understanding of the world to include something we judge to be beneficial: it represents the real world coming into closer agreement with our understanding of how it ought to work. It's not hard to accept a sudden raise at work. It's surprising, eliciting an excited "Really?" confirmation towards your boss, but it totally matches our understanding of how the world ought to work. Who doesn't think they ought to get paid more? For good news, denial is usually reduced to merely confirming that we did not, in fact, mishear, mis-see, or otherwise misunderstand.

For unhappy surprises, denial is more complex. People typically respond in three different patterns, mixed together in any proportion. First is the flat denial that the situation is even real. Simply don't acknowledge it; unless you admit it's real, it isn't. Second is to deflect full knowledge of the facts. You recognize that there's a bad situation afoot, but you consciously avoid learning its true nature and scope. And finally, you tell yourself that the situation really isn't all that bad. That's what happens when the facts themselves become undeniable, and denial has nowhere to look but to the potential consequences.

When Denial Doesn't Fit

But not every character is a normal adult as I described above. And not all scenes take place where things are so familiar as to engage the character's pattern matching circuitry. In fact, a great deal of the fun in fiction comes from writing about characters who are not ordinary, or dumping ordinary characters into situations where they don't understand things anymore. In those cases, it is appropriate to tone down the frequency and severity of the character's denial.

Consider children. Kids are far less skeptical than adults, because they have not yet experienced the pattern of being right most of the time about how the world works. The younger they are, the more this is true. Those who have kids will remember that vexing asking-why phaseThat's what happens when they realize that they don't understand the world very well, but want to, and notice that adults typically do understand. Thus they seek to tap into our expertise.

This is why young kids are so gullible. You could tell them, "When you turn 18, you have to spend three years working in the coal mines. Everybody does it. That's how the country gets its electricity." They probably won't like the idea, but at the right age you bet they'll believe you.

Similarly, consider a character tossed into a totally unfamiliar situation-suck them through a portal to another world, send them to prison, etc. What you're really doing is making their prior understanding of how the world works, moot. They probably won't accept this situation immediately. The loss of understanding is its own unpleasant surprise, triggering its own denial. First, they must experience failures from their previous ways of dealing with the world not working as expected.

The character will become hesitant to do things, because they don't understand what might happen. In some ways, that character reverts to a child-like, credulous state: if you give them a mentor who understands this new world, chances are they'll accept the mentor's pronouncements at face value. Just like a child, they will want to tap into someone else's understanding. And oh, the fun you can have with a mentor who lies…

Deny or Don't But Make Sure You Know Why

The beginning of this article focused on why we deny because that's what shows us the applications and limitations of denial. Knowing why helps us understand when we should apply denial to our characters and when we can get away without it.

Knowing why helps us see that if we skip the denial in situations where the character ought to know what's what, we make them look gullible. Forrest Gump, anyone? If we show kids as unusually skeptical, we may make them look wise beyond their years. Knowing that the underlying pattern strengthens with age helps us see that crotchety old characters who are stuck in their ways are the product of a pattern that has become so strong, even new experiences can't overcome it.

Whether any of that is good or bad depends on the portrayal you're after. Either way, denial is undeniably human. Mastering the portrayals of denial is essential in your quest to present the most believable characters you can.

Jason Black is a freelance book editor who actively blogs about character development. He recently appeared as a book doctor at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference. To learn more about Jason, visit his website at


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