Creating Emotional Frustration in Your Characters

Using emotion to create strong, emotional characters and move a plot is critical for any writer in any type of genre. Knowing what kind of emotion to use and how to use it is a different matter, however. And while our fictional characters experience the same wide range of emotions that we do, frustration is often the over-arching element that drives a plot and creates motivation. In an excerpt from Write Great Fiction: Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress, the author shows different ways a character might act when frustrated in a certain situation. Using these examples, and the exercises below, you can create frustrated characters that advance your story at a steady pace while also drawing the reader into a realistic setting.

FRUSTATION — THE USEFUL EMOTION IN FICTION
Quick–what is the most important emotion your fictional characters feel? Love? Hate? Anger? Desire? All of these are critical. Love for a person or desire to attain a goal drives most plots. Hatred or anger drives most of the rest. Anna Karenina loves Vronsky; the wicked queen hates Snow White; Ahab is furious at Moby Dick; Nero Wolfe desires to solve murders. However, despite this impressive list, the most important emotion in fiction is something else.

Frustration.

I say this because, without frustration, there is no plot. Frustration means that someone is not getting what he wants, and that’s what makes a story work. Motivation, values, and desires start the character on her fictional journey. Climaxes are often provided in scenes of love, battle, or death. But everything in between, the meat of your story, is driven by frustration.

Consider: If Anna got Vronsky easily and with no frustration to anyone, or if Ahab harpooned that white whale the first time he tried, the novels would both be over. Instead, Anna and Ahab (plus the wicked queen and Nero Wolfe) are frustrated in attaining their goals. Frustration creates story.

It thus behooves you, the writer, to pay considerable attention to frustration. How is frustration tied to character? How can you use your character’s frustration to best advantage? How do you portray this important emotion most effectively? As with everything in writing, there are no simple and absolute answers, but there are some time-tested guidelines.

Frustration and Character: She Did What?
Think about the people you know. I’m sure, even though I’ve never met your friends and family, that they differ from each other in many significant ways, one of which is how they handle frustration. Some typical ways that people react to being blocked from what they want:

  • anger
  • tears
  • determination to try harder
  • blame the closest person
  • blame the universe
  • blame themselves
  • drink
  • vent frustration to a trusted friend
  • give up
  • seek revenge on whatever is frustrating them
  • pray
  • shrug and pretend stoicism
  • slide into depression

Now for the big question: Which of these responses to frustration will your character choose? The answer depends on two things: what kind of person he is and what you want your plot to do.

It’s a good idea to think about these questions before you begin writing because how a character reacts to frustration is tied to her characterization as a whole. For instance, a woman who reacts to frustration with no self-control whatsoever, throwing things and screaming, cannot, in the next scene, be cool and calculating. Similarly, a man who blames himself for his troubles will not plausibly go out and murder his frustrator. So what kind of person is your character? This is, of course, the key question we’ve been asking all along, but consider it now from another angle: your invented person’s natural response to frustration, plus how good she is at controlling and modifying that response.

Here, Tom Wingo in Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides is trying to see his sister Savannah, who has tried to kill herself, and is being frustrated in this attempt by Savannah’s psychiatrist:

“Is the coffee good, Tom?” she asked with complete control.
“Yes, it’s fabulous. Now, about Savannah.”
“I want you to be patient, Tom. We’ll get to the subject of Savannah in a moment,” the doctor said in a patronizing voice shaped by far too many advanced degrees. “There are some background questions I need to ask if we’re going to help Savannah. And I’m sure we want to help Savannah, don’t we?”
“Not if you continue to talk to me in that unbearably supercilious tone, Doctor, as though I were some gaudy chimp you’re trying to teach to type. And not until you tell me where my goddamn sister is.”

In this tiny vignette, Tom reacts to frustration with sarcasm (“Yes, it’s fabulous”), impatience, and anger. That’s pretty much how he reacted as a child and also how he’ll react to other problems throughout the book, nearly destroying his family–until life teaches him to behave differently.

Sarcasm and anger are not, of course, the only possible responses to frustration. If Tom had been a different type of person, he might have:

  • humbly sought the doctor’s help, doing whatever she told him, and been grateful for the direction
  • gone to a church, instead of traveling to New York, to pray for Savannah’s soul
  • written Savannah off as too much trouble and a bad influence on his children, so why should he do anything at all?
  • taken Savannah’s troubles as just one more sign that the universe is rotten and gone to a local bar to drink away his bitterness

His actual response defines Tom Wingo as a person and as a character in Conroy’s novel.

In fact it determines the novel. How?

Plotting From Frustation
A different response from Tom Wingo to his frustration would have led to a radically different book. How your character handles frustration will determine major elements of your plot. Does she fight back, seeking revenge on whoever is blocking her? Then your plot will feature fights and payback schemes. Does he give up? Then either someone will need to motivate and rescue him, or else he will learn to live without whatever he wants (both respectable plots). Does she try again (and again and again) until she succeeds? Then you will have an upbeat, victory-against-the-odds story.

For example, consider Mario Puzo’s best-selling The Godfather. When an attempt is made on Don Corleone’s life by rival mobsters abetted by a crooked cop, the don’s two sons react very differently. Sonny Corleone wants to go roaring off for immediate revenge (he does this later, in response to a different frustration, and that reaction gets him killed). Michael Corleone has a different response to the world’s not going the way he wishes. He plans, coolly and rationally, to get even. His plans against everyone who has frustrated his family (dirty cop, rival gangsters, Sonny’s killer) provide the plot for the entire rest of the novel.

So think very carefully about how your character reacts when he doesn’t get what he wants. Can his reaction provide you with plot ideas?

Frustration Plus: Mixed Emotions
Because frustration is such an important emotion in fiction, how well you portray it can make the difference between characters that seem real and those that seem cardboard.

A common mistake in portraying frustration is to assume that we, your audience, know what your character is feeling. This usually occurs because the author feels exactly what the character does and assumes that we do, too. If the protagonist has not been invited to her sister-in-law’s wedding, and such a social slight would make the author feel hurt and depressed, that author may have her character also react with hurt and depression–and expect the reader to automatically know that. After all, both the author and character would feel left out, so wouldn’t everybody?

No. As we have seen, people react to frustration with an astonishingly wide spectrum of emotions and action. (Some people, for instance, would be delighted to be spared a family wedding.) Therefore, you must dramatize this character’s frustration, fully enough and convincingly enough for readers to share it even if they themselves might react differently. This is a situation in which it is crucial to “become the reader,” stepping back from your work to view it as if you were someone else.

Complicating your task is the fact that frustration, like love, is seldom a “pure” emotion. It can come mixed with many others: anger (“How dare they!”), hurt (“Why won’t they help me?”), fear (“I’ll never get what I want”), self-blame (“I’m not good enough to succeed”), resignation (“Can’t win ’em all”), or bitterness (“Life sucks”).

The natural response to frustration of Amber St. Clare, the protagonist of Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber, is anger. But notice what happens during a fight with her third husband, who has made her leave a court party early:

“You made me come away because I was enjoying myself! You can’t stand to see anyone happy!”
“On the contrary, Madame. I do not object at all to happiness. But I do object to watching my wife make a ridiculous display of herself. . . . You know as well as I do what was in the minds of those men tonight.”
“Well!” she cried, clenching her fists. “What of it! Isn’t the same thing in the mind of all men! It’s in yours, too, even if you–” But there she stopped, suddenly, for he gave her a look so swift and so venomous, so threatening that the words caught in her throat and she remained quiet.

Amber’s natural anger is modified by fear, and the rest is a far more interesting scene than just another fight between her and another of her many men.

To use this technique, ask yourself:

  • What is my character’s primary response to frustration?
  • What else might she be feeling in response to this particular thwarting of her desires?
  • Will the secondary emotion also be useful in plotting? (Amber’s fear, which grows through several more frustrating clashes with her husband, eventually leads her to murder him before he can murder her.)

Writing Realistic Frustration: Exercises

  1. Think back to the last time you felt completely frustrated. Maybe you couldn’t get someone else to see your point of view, you couldn’t get an appliance to work properly no matter what you did, or you were dealing with a particularly recalcitrant bureaucracy. Sit quietly and remember as much as you can about how you felt, what you thought, and how your body reacted. Jot down the salient points.
  2. List three people you know well and who are different personality types from you. For each, jot down how she might have reacted to the same frustrating circumstances you experienced. What might each have thought? Felt in the body? Said aloud? Done next?
  3. Look at your lists. Are any of these characters interesting to you? If so, imagine giving them something much larger and even more frustrating to react to: repeated harassment from a destructive neighbor. An unfair job firing. Identity theft. Do their reactions lead you to imagine more plot developments for this situation? If not, put the most intriguing person on your list into a situation that does not interest you. What might frustrate him there? How would he react to it?
  4. Find a scene in a favorite book where a character is thwarted in obtaining something he wants. What other emotions, if any, does he feel besides frustration? How has the author made you know that? Is there anything here you can use for your story?

Characters, Emotion & ViewpointFor more insights into creating frustrated characters, check out Write Great Fiction: Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress.

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