Writing Angry

I’m a coward. Let’s get that on the table first thing. I am not one of those heroines who stands up to a person in a rage and tells them off in some narratively satisfying way. My own personality, and early training, work against it. When I’m dealing with a volcanically angry person? I shut down. I get quiet and sort of “gone-to-my-own-private-island” absent until it’s over. It’s different if I see someone being bullied or harassed–but even then, my tendency is not to confront the bully but to take care of the bullied. Like I said: confrontation-averse.

Among other things, this means that for me, writing about being angry, or confronting someone who is angry, is problematical. I tend to want to give my characters the very thing I lack: a dramatic response. Preferably a powerful response that defuses the angry person’s anger and (in the most extreme cases of wish-fulfillment) gets the angry person to examine their anger and views and makes them immediately smite their brows and cry “At last I understand, and apologize for my rage! Also, you were right!!”

Like that’s gonna happen. Even in fiction.

To avoid getting into unbelievable heroics, I tend to sidestep describing an immediate answer, and to focus on the physical aspects of anger–both on the giving and receiving end. Me, I hate being angry; it makes me feel shaky and sick, fearful and out of control. Anger feels dangerous to me–even when I’m damned certain that it is justified. But I’ve known some people who, by the appearance of it, are exhilarated by anger, who seem to grow larger, as if rage was something they could feed on. They get red-faced; even the shorter guys loom and attempt to overawe or overwhelm the opposition: to a hammer, everything is a nail.

As a reader and a writer, I don’t find the spectacle of two people in a rage at each other for more than a short burst entertaining, or even particularly convincing. Two hammers banging away at each other aren’t going to last long. When I can, I try to write confrontations the way I write fight scenes. There’s a rhythm, and each side is likely to step back now and then, catch her breath, and look for a weakness in her opponent to exploit. And choosing the right weapon for that weakness–the right words–is hard at the best of times.*

Dramatically, I’d rather have one enormous green rage monster” face off against a person whose who has sufficient control not to give in to the rage. That’s where having a character who is a trained fighter of some sort–in my usual case, a swordswoman–helps. Because fighting angry is never a good idea, and a well-trained combatant knows it. And that gives a writer the opportunity to follow the ebb and flow of the argument, and of the combatant’s efforts, often strenuous, to keep her temper under control. Because that’s fun too: fighting yourself when you’re confronting someone else makes for lots of good, crunchy drama.

I imagine I’d like to be braver. I imagine I’d like to have the opportunity to fire off a stunning mot juste and make one of those frothing rage monsters see the error of his ways. But I know myself better.


* The reason why the esprit de l’escalier is such a universal feeling is because fury short-circuits language skills. (At least it does mine: on the rare occasions that I get into a frothing rage, my language skills drop back to the “Oh, yeah? Well–well–well I know you are but what am I?” level.)


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Writing Angry — 12 Comments

  1. I’m reading a fantastically interesting book (The Body Keeps the Score: Brain Mind and Bidy in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk). Brain scans of people taken while they’re experiencing traumatic PTSD flashbacks show that the region of the brain that produces language essentially shuts down. There is a physiological reason so many of us are struck dumb during traumatic events.

    As a warning: the book is fascinating, but NOT an easy read. BvdK has worked extensively with people who’ve experienced extreme trauma, and he details some of their stories.

  2. I never “got” such anger. Sure, I played the role occasionally as a boy, but it never felt natural.

    Some of this may be environmental. I have only once in my life seen adults in a real fight (a punch or two swung in a parking lot of a Red Robin). But I suspect it is more internal to me.

  3. I’ve seen that kind of volcanic anger up close. I had a boss once who was physically imposing and easily brought to rage; when he got angry his face turned red and he loomed in an intimidating way. And he was one of those people who found rage nourishing–it fed him, and made him feel good about himself. And (true to my own nature) all I can do when confronted with this kind of rage is to stay very still and let the storm play itself out.

    On the other hand, I have seen some people driven to rage who are, at the same time, sickened by it. It’s like watching someone at war with their own natures in real time.

  4. Here’s another book that explores these issues, all be it within the context of fantasy fiction so thus it does have swords involved too; I just finished listening to the audio edition:

    The Path of Anger (The Book and The Sword, #1) (2013) by Antoine Rouaud. It was published simultaneously in several countries, in translation, including England. It got here a couple of years ago, I think. The second book, The Ember in the Ashes, arrives here in November, They Say.

    Anger — one does meditate upon it today, here in NYC on 9/11. Particularly now with all the stories out about how down here we’re a cluster of cancer now, due to breathing the many toxins, which Christie Whitman, remember her? declared perfectly safe and breathable air for all us downtown residents.

  5. Some people believe rage (or drunkenness) gives them an excuse for bad behavior. And historically, people have been more willing to give smaller punishments to people who commit crimes in anger than those who do so cold-blooded.

    But the person who kills in road rage certainly is a bigger danger to the rest of us than the person who kills his spouse for the insurance money.

  6. I have a temper and have been known to explode, but on the whole I associate out-of-control anger, at least in myself, with impotence: I get angry when I can’t see a solution. And I fight much better when I’m centered and calm; it’s easier to see openings.

    But there are lots of issues with women and anger, as all the fallout over the US Open final proves once again. I know that I am accused of “yelling” and so forth when I am just standing my ground and refusing to put up with nonsense. There’s a new book out that sounds interesting: Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, by Soraya Chemaly. Here’s an article about it: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/sep/11/serena-williams-angry-soraya-chemaly-women-should-unleash-rage

  7. My mother once told me, after a rare explosion (mine; hers were not so rare) that “this isn’t like you.” I raged (inwardly) that it was totally like me, just for once that me had made it out past the gatekeepers. But after being angry I always feel ashamed, as if I’ve given in to my worst angels. Damned angels.

  8. This is a subject Ive been studying for many years. Among interesting studies are Elias Canetti on crowds and power, in which he deals with anger, and also the muscle memory scars of horrible beatings that remain even after the physical scars have faded. Bailie’s book on violence is also interesting. Rough reads, all.

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