The Root of the Problem: Underlying Emotions

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Earlier this week, Hubby texted me from work to ask if I was okay because I seemed stressed. I do? I texted back. He proceeded to tell me that I’d seemed angry while cleaning the kitchen the night before, and he wanted to know if it was work or family issues or just what. I thought of texting *shrug*. I hadn’t even realized I seemed angry, let alone did I know why.

Instead I texted a funny by-the-way about how angry the twelve-month-old on my lap got when I failed to relinquish another bite of the peaches I’d stirred into my yogurt-and-granola breakfast. The kid ate half my fruit! But he was so hilarious about it that I didn’t mind (too much).

Two of my favorite picture books are What’s Wrong, Little Pookie? and What Are You So Grumpy About? In the first, by the time the mom is finished with her outlandish guesses, Little Pookie the pig has forgotten his reason for being upset. In the other book, it ends by asking if you’ve got the worst reason of all for your moodiness: because someone made you laugh when you were trying to be grumpy. In either case, the books sidestep the issue with humor, which is a pretty good strategy for kids to learn, in my opinion. Humor usually cures my moods too.

In writing, though, it feels like I’m never allowed to sidestep. When a character is angry, I have to get to the bottom of it. I have to know why.

It’s just such an issue that brought my first manuscript to a halt: I couldn’t figure out why my main character was so worried about her sister. Maybe that’s why I sometimes procrastinate dealing with underlying emotions in my characters, because I’m nervous that I won’t be able to figure out the answer, and that my guesses will be as outlandish as Pookie’s mom asking,

“Did tiny green elephants
with wings oh so blue
fly off with the cookies
and leave none for you?”

So this week I’m breathing a sigh of relief for just one paragraph that finally opened an answer about why, in my second novel, the main character Wendy is angry with her dad after the divorce. My other guesses were clichéd and way off: Because he had an affair? No. (And he didn’t.) Because they both have temper issues? No. (And they don’t.) Because he’s forcing her to stay with him in California for the summer? No. (And that’s a side issue.)

It’s funny how you can tell when you’ve hit on the right answer. It slides into place like the cardboard puzzle pieces my four-year-old matches up next to me while I write. It feels like “Of course!” You can tell that it matches because it “goes with” all your previous discoveries. You feel like you should have seen it so much sooner, it’s that obvious.

Here’s my discovery of the week (unpolished, rough-draft paragraph, so don’t judge my writing by this!):

Her parents had always joked that her brother Brandon was their mom’s replica, analytical and cautious, while Wendy was their dad’s—eager and curious.  Family disagreements split down predictable sides: Wendy and Mitch versus Brandon and Cheryl.  “Fine,” her dad would usually conclude, “you two stay if you want.  Dee and I are going.” But this time he’d gone without her.  Brandon was off to UW; her mom had been impossible to relate to even before post-divorce grieving set in.  Her one family ally had abandoned her, slunk off like a traitor, leaving her alone.

Somehow the dad finally comes alive for me in just these few sentences, especially with the bit of dialogue. I can finally grasp the paradox of how much Wendy loves and hates him at the same time, which makes sense, considering you can’t hate anything you don’t care about first.

It’s also funny how sometimes the right info/insights just land in your lap at the right time. A couple of weeks ago I attended a church class about mental health and one of the speakers discussed bereavement and how you can go through the grieving process with events besides death, like when you have your first baby it’s normal to grieve the loss of your freedom, or how it’s normal to grieve after a divorce. The steps and symptoms of bereavement also helped me understand the underlying emotions Wendy and her mom are going through.

So yeah. While in real life there are plenty of times to let things go and not worry about the past, in writing, the more you can dig down to the root of your character’s emotions, the better you’ll understand them.

Any thoughts? How do you cope with negative emotions? Laugh them off? Purge through catharsis (like a tear-jerker flick)? Eat rocky road ice cream? Take a drive — such as a road trip down the Pacific coast like Wendy does? When’s it important to isolate the cause?

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