Putting grief into words is futile. And trying to do so would bankrupt the vocabulary of all languages. -Mark Twain
Grief is a heavy and relatively ever-present part of life. Just as surely as we are born, we have to die too. While it’s true you and I, by virtue of sitting here, are still alive, we’ve all had to say goodbye to someone, and regardless of how deeply felt that loss might have been, grief changes who we are on a fundamental level. It makes us question our existence, how we function on a daily basis and what we really want for the short time left to us.
Characters dealing with a recent loss is not generally something you read in the scope of fiction, where there’s a plot to get about. And it stands to reason; it’s hard to write about things for which our languages all fall short, and that much intense emotion tends to overtake the other plot elements. Don’t get me wrong: getting grief to play along with the other plot elements can be done, it just takes a lot of finesse and careful respect.
Here are seven things to keep in mind when creating a character in grief:
Don’t create grief lightly – It’s like creating a character death – it can’t just be a plot point, and it has to be earned through the storytelling. A character who has recently experienced a loss is going to have grief at the forefront, and it’s probably going to be unwieldy to work with because of how poisoning and unreasonable it can be. If you need a loss to play more subtly into the character, consider putting some time between your story’s present and the death.
Grief colors everything – There’s a quote: Your absence has gone through me like a thread; everything I do it colored with it. And it’s true. Literally every other thought will be tied with the loss and the tiniest things will start your character down long and winding roads they might not want to wander. You have to consider too that that constant thinking and remembering becomes exhausting and isolating. Until your character is able and willing to break the grief cycle, it can be a lot like have a drug addiction.
Others continually remind the grieving that they don’t quite understand – Speaking of feeling isolated, your character WILL frequently walk away from many experiences feeling alone and isolated. Everyone’s in a different place in their lives and a lot of the people around your character are unlikely to be actively grieving. Even small things like a slightly insensitive joke can have your grieving character throwing up mental walls and pulling away. Sometimes there might be one person they can lean on, but even then their first instinct might not be to do so.
Grief doesn’t always make sense – Sometimes it’s panic at an everyday, ordinary noise. Sometimes it’s irrational rage at a social media post. And sometimes it’s just the cumulation of so much stress and sadness that mental breakdowns make sense, at least from where your grieving character is standing. But that doesn’t mean that those around him/her will understand, relate or even know how to react.
The grieving really do think of things in terms of before and after the loss – In terms of everything.
There are always secondary losses – Losing friends is the most common; there will always be someone who at some points basically says “Gosh, it’s been a month already. Can you just move on? Or at least stop talking about it?” Even if it appears to be a reasonable request, a grieving individual is already dealing with a lot, so when this situation happens, it’s easier to simply back away and cut ties than put up a pretense and pretend to be “okay” or even try to educate the person about how grief works. Another thing to note that could be a somewhat useful plot device is that the secondary losses will keep coming long after your character thinks they’ve stopped.
Physical symptoms – It’s not a wonder that prolonged sadness has physical tolls, but it can be difficult to write them into the language of a story. Things like exhaustion and depression are much more convincing when woven bit by bit into a sentence here or there, while others like loss of appetite, suicidal thoughts or rage can be more effectively communicated in an overt manner.
Have you ever written a character who was actively grieving? Do you feel like you grasped the concept of grief well? What was the most difficult part?