Saturday, November 10, 2012

Do your characters grieve?

It occurred to me as I watch the presidential election cycle play out in social and broadcast media that the Republican Party is collectively going through the five (or seven, depending upon whom you reference) cycles of grief. Briefly those are, in order of appearance, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

That observation, in turn led me to wonder if fiction writers are portraying grief (at least with major characters) in their work. It is an open question and would love to hear what fellow ink-stained toilers think. Feel free to leave comments below.

Using the GOP as a model, what can we learn as writers. If you have been watching, it was apparent on election night that the cognoscenti of the right were beyond astonishment that their candidate was losing, and watching Karl Rove desperately deny the math on Fox News was a supreme example of denial.

What has followed has been the backlash of anger among people who dumped so much cash into Super PACs, media types that make a living stirring up their bases, and rank and file flaming on social media. Politicians are already in the bargaining stage where they will likely learn a 'my way or the highway' approach will no longer will have much currency in Washington. Depression will follow along with acceptance. But political parties tend to react more slowly than  individuals so another display of cultural disconnect may come their way in a couple of years.

But how do we translate grief into our fiction? Whether we wish to portray a societal shift such as the one currently occurring or a personal one happening to a character? I would posit that a clear understanding of these stages is paramount and should be represented as action or dialogue rather than exposition. Take the following as an example:

'Dr. Melman saw the disbelief in Audrey's eyes when he explained the diagnosis of breast cancer and, at age thirty-one, she would lose both her breasts and suffer extensive bouts of chemotherapy. What he hadn't yet told her was that it was probably a losing battle.'

It contains all the information, but none of emotion, the shock, that such a revelation should have at its core. Let's look at another stab at the same scenario:

"I'm afraid I have some bad news, Audrey. It's definitely breast cancer and it is a pretty aggressive type. I'm sorry."
"Are your certain, Dr. Melman?" She had reflexively put her hands to her breasts and then touched her silky blonde hair. Her soft blue eyes had widened, with tears threatening to spill down her cheeks. "This can't be happening to me, I don't have any family history of cancer." She gulped air reflexively then set her jaw, "There must be some mistake. I can't have cancer."
"I'm sorry, Audrey. There's no mistake. I checked the biopsy report myself." The doctor had seen this reaction countless times before and it still tugged at his heart each time he delivered the news. "On the bright side, you're young and otherwise healthy, so you should tolerate the surgery and chemotherapy pretty well."
"Surgery?" The shock was complete now. "Chemotherapy?" She wiped ineffectually at the tears that now ran freely down her face.
"Yes, and I would suggest a double radical mastectomy as soon as possible. We can't begin chemo until you heal from the surgery." Melman handed her a box of tissues. "I would suggest you have a conversation with your family."
"There's only Joe." The silence hung heavy in the air of the overly warm, claustrophobic exam room. "He's my boyfriend."
"Well, he needs to know and you'll need his help."
"I suppose. Can I ask you one more thing, Doctor?"
"What are my chances?"
Melman appraised his patient; young, beautiful, single trying to gauge his response so it left some hope he didn't really believe was there.
"About fifty percent over five years."
"And if I choose no treatment?"
"Six months, maximum."
"What do you really think?"
Now it was Dr. Melman's turn to gulp down some air. He fought to maintain his professional composure and force the lump back down his throat.
"If it were me, I would enjoy the next few months and call it quits." In his professional career he had never given such advice, but right here, right now, it seemed the only fair thing to do.
Audrey sat up straight, hooked her bra and began buttoning her blouse. The tears had stop flowing now and she stood up, collecting her purse and offered her hand which Melman grasped with both of his.
"Thank you, Dr. Melman. I suppose we probably won't see each other again. I'm planning a vacation to Tuscany."

Okay I just crammed all the stages in a few lines done on the fly without any serious editing and admittedly a serious treatment would be considerably longer than cranking out one paragraph of exposition, but I think it is still a useful exercise. Part of the human condition is grief, and giving an authentic voice to your characters will enrich your fiction and draw your readers deeper into your stories. Try it the next time tragedy is about to befall someone in your work and I think you will be pleased with the result.


1 comment:

  1. Hmmm... lots of grist here for the mental mill.

    My first-person protagonist, a young farm wife, discovers the body of her closest female friend, who had disappeared under a cloud of suspicion. Naturally she is shocked and wants to find the killer and clear her friend's name.

    She can't very well deny the death, having clapped eyes (and nose) on the corpse.

    Anger, definitely.

    How might the bargaining play out...?

    Thanks for an intriguing angle, Robert.