When writing fiction, you want your characters to seem authentic to readers, to react in believable ways to the events that happen to them. Such reactions need not match how the reader would react in the same circumstances, necessarily, but they should be in accordance with the character’s personality, not clash with it. To achieve that authenticity, you need to be a detailed observer of human nature. In addition to that, you can discover what psychiatrists have determined.
Psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed her ‘Five Stages of Grief’ model and described it in her book On Death and Dying. The five stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance and are sometimes abbreviated as DABDA.
There are those who dispute Kübler-Ross’ theory and some who have competing notions. You are free to choose the theory you like best. For our purposes in this blog post, let’s stick with DABDA. Dr. Kübler-Ross recognized these five separate reactions may apply to more than just human reaction to the death of a loved one. They may apply in some manner to the responses to any unexpected unfortunate event with emotional content, any shocking or surprising negative circumstance experienced by a character.
A character can pass through phases in different order, or skip one or more phases entirely. That will be determined in part by the event being reacted to, and the personality of the character. Bear in mind a phase like denial can be expressed quickly by the character saying, “I don’t believe it,” or “No way.” These don’t have to be experiences dragged out over several paragraphs.
Also note that a character need not ever reach acceptance. He or she can get stuck at any of the other stages. Since that’s not a good sign of emotional health, it can make for interesting and dramatic fiction. Imagine a person getting stuck at the anger stage, for example. How would that person act? What would she be thinking of? How does she go through life while dominated by feelings of rage? Similarly, the notion of becoming fixed at the denial, bargaining, or depression stages comes with major consequences for such characters.
Simply knowing one theory of how people normally react to surprising or shocking events can be a help as you strive to create believable and authentic characters. Do you disagree, or have you used Kubler-Ross’ theory in your own writing? Leave a comment and let me know. Though you might not believe it, or it might tick you off, or you’d do anything if it weren’t so, or it makes you feel miserable, or you’ve finally come to understand and consent to the truth of it, I am–