Extremely Emotional

I recently workshopped a story in which, apparently, the protagonist was depressed. At least, that’s what all my classmates said. Their comments mainly consisted of wanting to know what she was like when she wasn’t depressed, what she was doing in response to her depression, and how other people react to her depression. The main thing they said was that she was depressed.

I didn’t write her to be depressed. I merely wrote her to be unhappy. It wasn’t something I thought a lot about, but the point of the story was to show a woman who was unhappy with where she chose to live because the people she met there, not because of the place. I didn’t mean for it to be the story of her spiral into depression.

Obviously, part of this is my fault as a writer. I need to show more of her when she is not unhappy so that the reader isn’t constantly barraged with her sadness. But I think there is also something at work here that settles squarely on the reader’s shoulders, and that is the exaggeration of emotions in fiction.

Let’s say you’re reading a story, and toward the beginning, a young man meets a young woman. How many of you instantly assume that by the end of the story, they’re going to be in some way romantically involved? (I know I do.) What about when at the beginning of a novel, a husband admits to having issues with his wife? Don’t we all expect by the end to have at least broached the subject of divorce?

As readers, we are primed to stories from the very beginning of our lives, so we know a little bit about what to expect. We know that what is at stake at the beginning will become more endangered by the end, and we know that more often than not, they end up at the extremes. As Chekhov said, if a gun is introduced in Act I, it will go off in Act III.

Even small cues can lead to huge assumptions on a reader’s part. In a few different stories, I have given a character sympathetic to the protagonist some sort of less-than-pretty feature (like a big nose or hairy hands), and unfailingly, when I describe that feature, my beta readers circle it and say something like “this makes me wonder if I should like the character or not.” Their reaction doesn’t come from superficialism but from the tradition of giving good guys the good features and bad guys the bad features. After all, a reader is not in the world of the book; they only get what the writer filters for them. So a reader must trust that everything filtered is a cue to interpretation.

This leads to problems for writers, like me, who don’t want to go to the extremes of emotions or want romantic leads to have crooked ears. How can I write a story about unhappiness without the stakes being so high that it is depression? I do believe I can do it, but I think it will take very careful consideration of which cues I give the reader. And there might have to be something else to raise the stakes so that the story is not just about her emotion.

A related issue is letting your readers see something in your work you didn’t mean to put in there, which Veronica Roth talked about this week.

7 thoughts on “Extremely Emotional

  1. I am still learning how to show emotions, but one thing that is unpredictable is the reader’s reactions. What one person might read as unhappiness another might see as depression. I think you need to write what your character is feeling and seeing and let the reader relate the way they think. I suppose having a person sad then snap out of it might be a way of mitigating depression. I spent years depressed and my mood stayed constant. My daughter can be sad one day and happy the next. So maybe quicker changes of mood would do it.

  2. On NBC evening news last night (1/25) they had a report on making grief a psychological disorder. Very odd I thought. Grieving is part of life, depression is different from grieving or even a temporary sadness.

    • In one of my classes, we were talking about a literary theorist who makes a distinction between mourning and melancholia, mourning being the natural course of grieving and melancholia being a fixation on one image or moment or idea of the thing being grieved. In mourning, for example, a person can accept that the lost object wasn’t perfect, but in melancholia they would have just that one image of perfection and never let themselves move on. I wonder if that melancholia (in a more psychological term, of course) is what they might be considering a psychological disorder? Otherwise, I agree that it seems odd. A disorder implies there is something wrong with it, doesn’t it?

  3. If I read of a character who is so unhappy with their life that they withdraw and hide–either partially by not engaging fully in their story-life that they are confronted with, or wholly by hiding themselves away from paticipating in that life–they are depressed. If a character is merely sad because of a death or a disappointment, it is an exaggeration to regard that as depression. I think Kim’s point about grieving is true. Grieving is a natural process. But if the grief extends, and the pain of loss prevents a return to active life and relationships, then it is depression.

  4. Ro, you make a good point about how the reason for the unhappiness is a cue readers use to decide what kind of emotion it is. In my story, there weren’t any specific cues except for the fact that she wasn’t happy in the place she was living, and the critiquers were asking questions about why she was unhappy.
    Heather, I think you make a good point about showing a range of emotion. If all I filter is the bad parts of her life, the readers are only going to know that part.
    Thanks for all your comments!

  5. I just read something about how people read and some writers write (terrifying) with psychological diagnosis in mind, as if you include this in a description the same way you would hair color. That is how pervasive all those labels have become! Readers expect it and writers are giving it to them. Since I haven’t read the story I can’t offer more than this, but it is an interesting take on the collective mindspace. Continue to keep your characters out of the expected mold, that’s all I can say.

    • Actually, in one of my literature classes this quarter, my professor keeps trying to diagnose the characters. She said that Lily Bart from House of Mirth almost seems like she has ADD and an addictive personality. It’s a dangerous game to play when you’re not an expert in these things! I prefer to just work with what’s on the page.

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