How The Seven Deadly Sins Can Help You Write Emotion: WRATH
“Yes, thou shalt know, spite of thy past Distress,
And all those Ills which thou so long hast mourned;
Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turned,
Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorned.”
– William Congreve
Writing emotion is one of the trickiest, most important tasks a writer will ever face. We stare at the words we’ve written–or worse, the blank page we haven’t written yet–with the age old wisdom, “Show, don’t tell,” echoing through our minds…and we wonder: How do I make my audience FEEL this?
So we’re going to talk about something me and my robotic self has no right pretend to be an authority on: Emotions in writing!
(Actually, “raw” and “intense” are words that often come up in descriptions of my writing, so maybe I do have something to offer here.)
This week’s emotion: WRATH, and its counterpoint, forgiveness.
Sometimes–often, if you are unfortunate enough to be a character in one of my books–people get mad. I mean mad. Frothing at the mouth, screaming yourself raw mad.
Other times, you get simmering, slow-burn mad. A quiet, seething kind of mad. While explosive anger, much like an explosion, only lay a short while before it burns itself out, slow-burn anger can sustain itself for years. It’s the stuff grudges are made of.
Anger needs to be written with power. It’s a passionate emotion–it needs to fire people up.
What do you do when you’re mad? What are the physical sensations you feel?
It varies from person to person, but here are some general “anger” characteristics:
• Tensing of muscles: Angry people clench their fists and their jaws, and their movements become tight and constricted because their muscles are taut. Anger pulls up the fight-or-flight response, so essentially, an angry person is a threatened person preparing for an attack.
• Changing voice: Related to tense muscles, people’s voices change when they’re angry. They get tighter, usually a little higher, and because of this constriction (and, you know, how MAD YOU ARE), LOUDER.
• Twitchy: Also tied to the muscles constricting, people get a little twitchy when they’re angry. This can also be viewed as jerky movements. In addition to this, they might act rougher than they should. This is why doors get slammed or mugs get smashed. Sometimes, it’s less about destruction and more about loss of control—they aren’t reigning in their strength like they normally would.
• Defensive: And accusative, and very, very unpleasant to be around. They’re throwing the blame on anyone but themselves, they’re pointing out things you’ve done wrong, and they’re damn insistent about it all.
• Loss of Reason: Depending on how mad this character is getting, it might be reasonable for them to…not be very reasonable. Breaking things, screaming accusations, throwing a fit…think of an angry toddler. A lot of adults about like this when they’re really, really mad. It’s just scarier because they’re big and they can do things like break people’s bones or drive their car into something.
How would all this pull together? Probably in something like this:
Lilith lashed out as he pulled the dog tags from her neck and examined them. She jumped, trying to grab them, but he was too tall, and he held them out of her reach, swatting her away like she was a fly.
Lilith stepped back, her breath coming in short spurts. She forced herself to take slow, deep breaths, but it wasn’t calming her down. It just made her sound like she was growling…which she was.
She unclenched her fists, the palms of her hands stinging from where her nails had bit into the skin. She still couldn’t speak—her jaw was clenched, twitching, and she didn’t trust her voice at the moment, so she swallowed hard before speaking. She could hear her heart hammering in her ears.
“I’m warning you,” she snarled, her eyes darkening, “Give that back.”
“Or you’ll what?” he asked with a laugh, looking at her small frame with amusement.
Her voice was gone again, her fists reformed. The only sound that escaped her was a snarl.
Not perfect, but you get the idea that Lilith is pretty damn mad here.
Everyone gets mad differently, so you’ll have to adjust from character to character, but the sensations of anger are pretty universal—how individuals express those sensations to the outside world is where the difference comes in.
Wrath and fury find their counterpoint in forgiveness. This isn’t so much the opposite of anger as it is what, hopefully, comes after we’ve had some cool-down time. Not always, of course—some wounds never heal and some bitterness lingers forever, but for the lucky few who can forgive, here’s what it’s like:
It feels lighter. But not hollow—forgiveness is freeing, not emptying. It actually makes you more whole than the anger ever could.
A character who is forgiving something that happened against them—especially if it’s big—has grown up a lot. They have learned to understand that their perspective isn’t the only perspective, and that even if they were in the right, and their enemy in the wrong, there is nothing to be gained in anger. They might even come to feel for the person they once hated, depending how deep the forgiveness goes.
Forgiving is not forgetting, it does not mean that they become friends (though they might—depends on the story and the characters), it does not mean all the damage from the hurt has been healed…it just means they’ve come to a place where they can move on, let go, and start rebuilding in earnest.
Forgiveness might involve seeing things from someone else’s point of view, or realizing that they themselves don’t want to live in hatred anymore.
For the very wise, they might never even experience the “anger” part of the equation. For others, they might never escape it. Most people linger somewhere in the middle—they get angry, then they cool down, then they start (at least striving toward) forgiving.
Something important to note: Anger is rooted in fear. You might recall I mentioned that anger triggers the fight-or-flight response—this is because anger is, primarily, an emotion of the threatened. Somehow, in some way, an angry character feels under attack. It doesn’t have to be their life—their reputation, a relationship they cherish, a carefully woven web of lies, or whatever else they hold dear is under siege and they are desperate to protect it. Anger is the last-ditch attempt to save something; it’s a last resort. The reaction of someone who’s at the end of their rope and has no other way of coping with the situation.
Anger is desperate, and afraid, and chaotic. It’s painful and frightening and ugly.
Remember that the average person, after blowing their lid, usually feels a fair amount of guilt or shame. Some, so afraid of expressing anger, go straight to guilt or shame and skip anger completely.
Let your character’s personality guide you. How do they react? Don’t put thoughts into their head—just do your best to capture their emotion on the page.
And don’t forget: Your ultimate goal is not just to convey the emotion of the character, it’s to make the reader feel it. When the reader feels furious with one character for slighting another, then you’ve done your job, and you’ve done it damn well.
What’s your favorite way to describe anger on the page? What words or phrases get your point across most clearly?