Writing Angry

I’m a coward. Let’s get that on the table first thing. I am not one of those heroines who stands up to a person in a rage and tells them off in some narratively satisfying way. My own personality, and early training, work against it. When I’m dealing with a volcanically angry person? I shut down. I get quiet and sort of “gone-to-my-own-private-island” absent until it’s over. It’s different if I see someone being bullied or harassed–but even then, my tendency is not to confront the bully but to take care of the bullied. Like I said: confrontation-averse.

Among other things, this means that for me, writing about being angry, or confronting someone who is angry, is problematical. I tend to want to give my characters the very thing I lack: a dramatic response. Preferably a powerful response that defuses the angry person’s anger and (in the most extreme cases of wish-fulfillment) gets the angry person to examine their anger and views and makes them immediately smite their brows and cry “At last I understand, and apologize for my rage! Also, you were right!!”

Like that’s gonna happen. Even in fiction.

To avoid getting into unbelievable heroics, I tend to sidestep describing an immediate answer, and to focus on the physical aspects of anger–both on the giving and receiving end. Me, I hate being angry; it makes me feel shaky and sick, fearful and out of control. Anger feels dangerous to me–even when I’m damned certain that it is justified. But I’ve known some people who, by the appearance of it, are exhilaratedby anger, who seem to grow larger, as if rage was something they could feed on. They get red-faced; even the shorter guys loomand attempt to overawe or overwhelm the opposition: to a hammer, everything is a nail.

As a reader and a writer, I don’t find the spectacle of two people in a rage at each other for more than a short burst entertaining, or even particularly convincing. Two hammers banging away at each other aren’t going to last long. When I can, I try to write confrontations the way I write fight scenes. There’s a rhythm, and each side is likely to step back now and then, catch her breath, and look for a weakness in her opponent to exploit. And choosing the right weapon for that weakness–the right words–is hard at the best of times.*

Dramatically, I’d rather have one enormous green rage monster” face off against a person whose who has sufficient control not to give in to the rage. That’s where having a character who is a trained fighter of some sort–in my usual case, a swordswoman–helps. Because fighting angry is never a good idea, and a well-trained combatant knows it. And that gives a writer the opportunity to follow the ebb and flow of the argument, and of the combatant’s efforts, often strenuous, to keep her temper under control. Because that’s fun too: fighting yourself when you’re confronting someone else makes for lots of good, crunchy drama.

I imagine I’d like to be braver. I imagine I’d like to have the opportunity to fire off a stunning mot justeand make one of those frothing rage monsters see the error of his ways. But I know myself better.


* The reason why the esprit de l’escalieris such a universal feeling is because fury short-circuits language skills. (At least it does mine: on the rare occasions that I get into a frothing rage, my language skills drop back to the “Oh, yeah? Well–well–well I know you are but what am I?” level.)


  1. Oh, I hate confrontation as well. It always makes me feel so inept, but I persist in trying to learn to confront when necessary in a nonjudgmental way. It’s hard! Some people just need a confrontation when they are attempting to get away with something. I actually find my anger is heightened by the fact that I really resent the person who is making me angry. Yes, I know, anger is supposedly a choice, but the choice happens after I am already angry. So, I suppose the choice at that point is to defuse the anger which is not instinctual and very difficult, Madeleine.

    So, you are no longer affiliated with the Book View Cafe? I await the very accomplished and self-possessed Sarah Tolerance in her next adventure.

  2. Hi, Becky:

    I’m still with Book View Cafe, but I post over here too (this was actually in the BVC blog a couple of weeks ago… I recycle shamelessly).

    And I am still plugging away on ST 4 (which is almost 3/4 of the way done–it’s the mystery bits that are the hardest for me) and of course, thoughts of ST 5 are dancing in my head. I have to forcibly put them aside and keep going on with the work at hand.

    I’m terrible at anger; one of the things I love about writing Miss Tolerance is that she’s much better at it than I am!


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