Monday, May 21, 2012

Creating an Emotional Arc: Stages 5 - 8

Mirror mirror on the wall:
how to be the most inspiring kick-ass character of them all.

A lot of writers will end an emotional arc at stage 4, with the main character confronting and then defeating the mean evil dude, tag on a quick conclusion and call it a victory. An ending like this is exciting and something we know and anticipate as readers. It’s also a technique that’s handy for carrying your emotional arc through a book series until its resolution in the final installment. For more on stages 1-4, see my earlier post.

Using the Harry Potter books by way of example, I wasn’t particularly surprised about the endings in books 1-6, but I felt a large measure of satisfaction about them because good triumphed over evil. Still, something emotional was left unresolved, and I felt that emptiness both as a reader (and as a movie-goer) because Harry was a more tortured soul with each consecutive book in the series. J.K. Rowling finally and inevitably addresses Harry’s soul in book 7 when Harry is, at last, able to clear his emotional traumas so that healing can begin. We know Harry’s been able to heal because at last he is confident and his personal boundaries are solid when he stands on the platform and waves goodbye to his children aboard the Hogwarts Express.

As difficult as it is to leave Harry Potter aside, let’s pick up where we left off running through the 8 stages in clearing emotional trauma. (1) Something happened that (2) angers our character and makes her feel threatened, so she (3) takes her anger out on other people – blaming them, because if it weren’t for them she wouldn’t feel like she does now. (4) She gets so angry that she works up the courage to confront the person who did her wrong and battles them. Maybe she raises her voice, maybe she swears, maybe she even goes ninja on the villain! Now the dust settles and she’s standing amid the aftermath of stage 4. Where does she go from here?

5. Finding the mirror

Up until now, our character’s anger has motivated her to seek retribution and justice. Her most natural human reaction now would be to justify her actions by believing that she’s right, that she’s in the right, that she has the right, that the other is just plain wrong. She's trounced the villain and now some might already call her a hero, but not me. I want her to inspire our readers, so we dare her to reach stage five and look beyond her own self and consider that the villain may not be a one-dimensional evil force but rather a more complex character with his own set of values and fears. Before I'll call her a hero, she needs to learn from this experience and bring back some wisdom. 

She’s ready to learn. Now that she’s released the pressure valve on her anger, she is calm enough to engage in some logical and perceptive thinking. She pulls in the reigns on blaming and projection and begins to see how she may have co-created the situation.

She notices the chink in the villain’s armor, a whisper of his vulnerability. And now our character flexes her maturity muscles because rather than take advantage of the villain’s vulnerability, your character begins to wonder why the villain acts the way he does. She wonders if the villain is afraid of something and then discovers what that fear is. She explores why the villain might fear that something, and what his belief is about it. Soon she sees that the villain believes something false, and that false belief creates a fear that compels the villain to act out to protect himself or something or someone he cares about.

Can you see why most characters screech to a halt before they’ve reached stage 5?  Finding the mirror is hard! Finding the mirror requires a certain amount of psychological and emotional maturity from your character. She must be able to look for the life lesson in what happened and begin to appreciate the role the villain played in teaching her that lesson.

**NOTE: In exploring this stage of finding the mirror, you might notice that your character has sadistic fantasies about exploiting the villain’s vulnerabilities and finding sick and depraved ways to cause the villain further pain and suffering. This fantasy behavior is Totally. Perfectly. Natural.  Enjoy it and move on.

6. Recognizing the reflection

If you’re like me, then your life is basically a soundtrack. Memories and ideas stir up lyrics to songs. The song evoked at this stage 6 of emotional clearing is a no-brainer. Before you start moonwalking and waving around a sequined glove, take a moment to appreciate that something magical happens before that Michael Jackson “Man in the Mirror” moment.

Maybe your character sees the villain as selfish, quick-tempered, untrustworthy, or manipulative. Superimposing their reflections, your character has the opportunity to see that the villain is reflecting or mirroring back an aspect of herself. She too can be selfish, quick-tempered, untrustworthy, or manipulative. I'll go so far as to call her a hero if she can now sees that she has done the same thing that she judged the villain for doing. 

Powerful, eh?  Damn straight.  Wait, there’s more. When your character’s anger crumbles it brings a delightful chaser of empathy and sadness because she understands first-hand, the fear that drives both her and the villain to that behavior.

Sit with that a moment.  Your character the hero looks in the mirror and sees the villain and her own image superimposed. Your hero and your villain are one and the same. Chilling.  If you’re inclined to write like Edgar Allen Poe, maybe you want to stop here. Let your character suffer a mental breakdown, convincing herself that she will never ever get out of this endless loop of pain.  Allow her to be haunted by the sound of her own beating heart.

"I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity." ~ Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

Or, you can move on to stage 7. 

7. Forgiveness

If your character is anything like me, I’m basically in shock in stage 6 when I see how the villain is mirroring back my own bad behavior. Then I move into feeling awful about myself at the start of stage 7. Now, the only thing that’s going to see me through and inspire others to take this journey is finding my way to forgiveness. Here’s how it’s done.

In stage 6, your character is staring at herself and the villain superimposed in the mirror and she’s seeing that they’re both afraid of something and it caused both of them to act out in a similar manner. Whatever the behavior is that is reflected back to her, it is one that ultimately is motivated by fear. It’s time for your character to do some exploring into her psyche.

Her next step is to ask, “What am I afraid of?” Let her spill her guts and talk about all the things she’s afraid of. A pattern will emerge that will point to a common theme in the things she says about herself, others, and the world.

This theme highlights your character’s false core belief. It developed over time, usually from childhood and is influenced by significant life events and particular life circumstances. A core belief is always an “I” statement, as in “I am unworthy.” She will hold onto this core-belief with a vise grip. A belief “Nobody will choose me” is called a supporting belief and it is a prediction about what others will do or have done. Her way of interpreting other people’s reactions gives the core belief the appearance of being true and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Your character is going to recognize how she has self-sabotaged by focusing on information that supports her belief and ignoring evidence that contradicts it. More, she is going to realize that her (and the villain’s) core belief is false and she is going to begin to understand and forgive herself for acting out in defense of that untrue core belief.

8. Letting go & moving on

No surprise, core beliefs are hard to change. However, your character kicks ass and she’s going to do just that. She’s made it through 7 difficult stages of clearing her emotional trauma and she is not about to backslide now. She is going to shatter the illusion of the core belief and uncover the truth, which will be a statement completely opposite from her false core belief; in this instance, “I am unworthy” shifts to “I am worthy.” And she’ll reinforce this new positive core belief with evidence and information.

At this point, there’s a tangible shift. All those emotions your character felt, the anger, pain, blame, empathy and sadness transmute to appreciation and gratitude for the villain. Realizing the powerful gift brought by the villain in this encounter, your character can at last release him. She may even feel compassion for the villain and be able to apologize and validate his pain.

Now, when your character looks in the mirror, the glass is clear and she sees only herself. True, strong, wise. Totally worthy. Mirror mirror on the wall, she is the most inspiring kick-ass character of them all.  Seriously!  She’s cleared emotional trauma. The conflict is over.

Bonus – there’s more trust in her relationships because she’s able to work through conflicts when they arise rather than run away.


So, there you have it. Three blogs and an exercise giving you my take on creating an emotional arc using anger. In case you missed my first post, here are the eight stages in one handy list: 

The 8 Stages
1. The smoking gun
2. Anger
3. Projection and blaming
4. Expressing anger and releasing pain
5. Finding the mirror
6. Recognizing the reflection
7. Forgiveness
8. Letting go and moving on

Most of the time, we go through these stages intuitively. These are the times when the smoking gun isn't aimed at us, or it misses its target, or our shields are solid enough to protect us. Other times, the bullet hits its target and we are hurt enough to get angry. 

Anger is an energetic signal that you are ready to make a change. How you want to make that change is a mental decision. It involves calculating the variables between changing the other person (doesn't work), changing the situation (might work), or changing something about yourself (worth a try).  

When a person in real-life or a character in a novel is brave enough to work through their anger and change a core belief about themselves they are, in my opinion, the most inspiring kick-ass character of them all.

Let me know what you think about this post series, and if there are other ideas you’d like to explore with me. I’d love to hear from you!

Monday, May 14, 2012

An exercise to tap your anger

Go ahead, beat up your sofa!

For this post, I want to back up a bit and really dig into stage 2 of the 8 stages of emotional clearing. Stage 2 is where your character must tap into her anger. As I said in my earlier post, many people get stuck at stage 2 because they don't recognize how anger disguises itself in other emotions or behaviors.
If you or your character has no clue how to touch anger or are just plain afraid to do it, this is the exercise for you! 

Getting in touch with anger.  Ooooh, that's a fun one. For someone who has a difficult time accessing anger, the key is to find something that's opposite of your normal routine. So, for instance, for people who spend much of their days in their brain (writers, software engineers, bankers, really any desk job) physical techniques can be very effective for releasing anger. People who are quiet can benefit from using their voice.  Here's a great technique that combines both types of release, physical and vocal.  

Things you'll need:  
  1. whiffle bat (plastic bat)
  2. sofa
  3. room to move with no breakable objects, people or pets nearby
Get yourself a whiffle bat and stand in front of your sofa.  Now think about a person who triggered you. Picture them in your mind. Hear their awful words. Picture them pointing their finger at you, yelling, accusing, blaming as they cross your personal boundary. Feel how your belly starts to churn up some energy. You're starting to feel that familiar flight or flight sensation. Stick with it. 
The person is coming at you, still yelling, accusing, blaming. You can't even hear the words any more. Just a roar in your ears and flashes of their angry face.  

Now pick up the whiffle bat
Give yourself permission to pummel your sofa.  
Really swing and whack.  Cuss.  LOUDLY.  Blame the source of your anger.  Cuss them to hell.  Keep going until you have no more whacks or cussing left to do. Drop the bat. 

Notice your energy.  Notice how you feel.  

Write that feeling down, or discuss it with someone.  Do you feel lighter? Do you feel lost? Do you feel more yourself? Do you feel pleasure? Do you feel guilty? What do you feel? However you feel, ask yourself why. What need did that release in energy fulfill?  What needs do you still have? 
Come up with some ways to fulfill those needs.

You're a writer - remember those feelings. Allow your character to draw on them to move through their own issues.  When your character recognizes their needs, they'll come up with a plan.

The technique above is very useful for expelling a large amount of anger and resentment very quickly. Notice how you feel about the technique. Your reaction to the technique is a reflection of how you feel about releasing anger. For some, the technique can be frightening and overwhelming.  Others relish the idea of pummeling something, swearing and screaming.  Some people only want to scream.  Some people can't scream at all, or won't cuss.  And others give only wimpy taps with the bat. For some, the session goes on for ages until they are physically and emotionally drained. For others, the session lasts only a couple of minutes. Whatever you won't do, or had difficulty doing in that exercise, those are signals of your personal boundaries, your code of behavior. 
Keep in mind though that the boundaries are artificial boundaries - you make them, you can break them, you can make those boundaries flexible and healthy. You're in a safe environment - just you and the whiffle bat and the sofa. Nothing is going to break. No one is going to get hurt. Things can only get better. Now, in this safe environment, is the time to give yourself permission to shift energetically.  

Giving yourself permission to release your anger in a safe environment is a great step toward healing. Because you are replacing the person who triggered you with an inanimate object, and you are quickly releasing a large amount of energy in a safe environment, the technique shifts your attention away from the other person onto you. Participating in the experience energetically imprints itself on you, shoring up your personal boundaries and giving you confidence that you can take care of yourself in the future. And with that confidence of being able to work through your anger to identify and fulfill your needs, you are less likely to be triggered by other people.

And now let's shift to writing.  I'm curious. How do your characters deal with anger?

Monday, May 7, 2012

Creating a Character's Emotional Arc: in stages 1 - 4

Imagine how excited I was to learn that my years of training in energy medicine and psychology could actually help me construct a fictional character’s emotional arc!  Now quadruple that and add a cherry on top because when I think about the ripple effect and how relaying this info on to you and how you can use it to reach your readers, I’m over the moon with excitement and gratitude.  

We’ve arrived at the fun part, where we see how to create a character’s emotional arc.  Let’s get to it. We’ll start with stages 1 through 4.

1. The smoking gun
Picture a smoking gun in your mind and chances are you’ll sense something sinister is afoot. Smoking guns indicate that someone violated a personal boundary or an agreement on how they are expected to behave around you. In writing, we call this threat or danger “the inciting incident.”

2. Anger  Biologically speaking, our bodies react to a perceived threat or danger by releasing certain hormones like adrenalin and cortisol, speeding our heart rate and increasing blood pressure, slowing digestion, increasing blood flow to major muscle groups and adjusting other autonomic nervous functions in order to give our bodies a burst of energy and strength.

Emotionally, the inciting incident triggers anger. Anger may be hard to recognize beneath the layers of anxiety, self-pity and sadness, but it’s there and your character will need to use that anger as a driving force to move through to the next stage. 

Finding the anger can be difficult because by culture or by nature, a lot of people don't allow themselves to get angry. They feel uncomfortable or even go so far as to believe they have no right to their anger. Are you one of them? Sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to fume in order for our characters to do the same. 

Look for clues to your character's anger. If you find her saying something like, “It’s not worth getting upset over,” that's a clear indication that she is stuffing her anger. Other indications are typical behavioral responses to the threat. Males typically respond with fight (aggression) or flight (social withdrawal, substance abuse), while females typically respond by protecting to their children, if they have any, and by seeking social support in groups. But hey, it’s your novel. Who’s to say that your character must conform to these typical roles? 

Just remember that at this stage your character does not want to be nice, she wants to be ANGRY.

3. Projection and Blaming
Now that your character is good and angry, go ahead and let her blame someone for causing her to feel that way. Not taking responsibility for our own feelings is called projecting. Many people project and blame out of earshot, but never confront the person with whom they are upset. It’s easy to see why. Most people would think twice about expressing their anger to the person holding a smoking gun.

4. Expressing anger and releasing pain
Your character has finally surmounted the obstacles of stages 1, 2 and 3. A round of applause is in order because it takes courage to make it this far.  You’ve reached the turning point in your novel. This is the step where your character expresses her anger toward the transgressor, the villain, the mean and evil dude, and finally stands up for herself. This is when your reader is anticipating a smack down and it is a cause for celebration.

How your character stands up for herself, depends on the intensity of the boundary violation and the inciting smoking gun incident. Mild violations may require just speaking up about it. Stronger violations, the kind that elicit reader response, may entail speaking up plus throwing in a few choice cuss words for good measure, dammit!

But what if your character is not willing to scold the mean and evil dude? Totally not surprising. Most people feel pretty weak when it comes to expressing their anger. Ultimately though, suppressing anger is futile. Unexpressed anger is toxic and your character will find a way to release it. Instead of confronting the evil dude, you might find your character turning anger inward against herself, or letting it out sideways by lashing out at the innocent, or even taking a circuitous route by engaging in passive aggressive behavior against the perpetrator. How your character manages her anger might violate personal boundaries and agreements and trigger an angry response from someone else. And yes, you can count me in among the wicked and wily scumbling my fingers and sneering, “Mwah ha haaaa!” because this kind of tension triggers subplots.  

But remember, if your goal is an emotionally rewarding ending, suppressing anger is not ultimately the answer. Your character must express her anger directly in order to release the pain.

A lot of writers will stop here, either subconsciously or purposefully, with the main character confronting and then defeating the mean evil dude followed by a quick conclusion, and call it a victory. 

How easy is it for you to express your anger? Do you confront the transgressor or does your anger come out in other ways? Are you uncomfortable at any point? Where is your sticking point? 

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Introducing the Eight Stages of Emotional Clearing aka Identifying a Character's Emotional Arc

Over the years, I’ve come across many techniques to clear negative emotions. Some of them occur naturally, and sometimes alarmingly, in our bodies. For example, toxic emotions can result in stomach upset similar to food poisoning and have its consequences with a day or more on or in front of the toilet. Or, our bodies can try to eliminate those toxins in other ways, as in hair loss, skin rashes and breakouts. Alarming, disgusting, nasty gross, yessiree. Go on, see my earlier post on why it's important to clear negative emotions.

Techniques that I’ve used in my healing practice to help my clients navigate through some pretty tough times might be EFT, holding alarm points, meditation, energy work, massage, and counseling. They are all extremely effective techniques, but they’re not easy to translate into a MG or YA novel, especially where I want to express a character’s emotional arc through action and interaction with other characters.

That set me to thinking about kids and how they might express their emotions and the consequences. Really, they’re no different than the teens and tween we all have living in our own psyches. Tweens and teens often don’t have access to any of those healing tools, and their raging hormones often result in confusing emotions and anger at some level for losing control of someone or something. The anger then spurs them to lash out either at people around them, or themselves, setting up conflict. Even in adult literature, those steamy scenes are wrought with conflict and that inner voice that asks, “Uh oh, what have a I done?” The conflict is what makes a plot intense.  It’s the page-turner.  

Conflict only gets you so far. Readers look for a satisfying ending. For me a satisfying ending would serve up justice, makes me feel good, and ties up all those loose ends. But as a writer, I can't go on only what I would like to see; I also have to consider what the character in my story wants. The ending to a story is set up by how the main character suffers those conflicts, and it is rendered satisfying by how they resolve those conflicts in a way that is deep and meaningful for them, probably one that doesn’t involve breaking out in hives or spending the day in the bathroom. 
To nudge my characters along the their emotional arcs, I loosely borrowed from the wisdom of Debbie Ford's Shadow work in Dark Side of the Light Chasers and came up with eight stages of emotional clearing. These are stages that everyone goes through to resolve emotional pain and trauma.

The 8 Stages
1. The smoking gun
2. Anger
3. Projection and blaming
4. Expressing anger and releasing pain
5. Finding the mirror
6. Recognizing the reflection
7. Forgiveness
8. Letting go and moving on

Most of the time, we go through these stages intuitively.  Other times we get stuck and need a bit more nudging. I like knowing where my characters get stuck because that informs their personalities.

Want to know more about these stages and how to build a character's emotional arc? Read on.