Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Arc of Character Reactions

Writing Wednesday

According to conventional psychology, the process of grieving involves five stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.

Looking at that list recently, I was struck by the thought that those stages represent the arc of character reactions. That is, that the stages represent a hierarchy of reaction strategies.

Consider a primitive encounter in which a stranger approaches.

Denial: the simplest reaction strategy is to ignore the newcomer. If they lose interest and leave, you've dealt with them at no cost to yourself.

Anger: if the stranger won't go away, a brief show of aggression might drive them off. If they run away, you've dealt with them at only a small cost.

Bargaining: if the stranger isn't spooked, you might try bribing them to leave. This is more costly, but it still resolves the situation quickly. (Are you starting to see the pattern?)

Depression: the stranger still won't go away and now you despair of finding a solution.

Acceptance: you finally find a solution.

Loss and its attendant grief takes a character through all five stages because there is no solution that will restore the lost object. But other kinds of interactions can end at an earlier stage.

For example, take the stereotypical presentation of a bad report card:
Child: Here, you have to sign this.

Parent: What is this?

Child: My report card?

Parent: There must be some mistake. [Denial]

Child: No, it's mine.

Parent: You knucklehead! How could ... [Anger]
If, at that point, the child mumbled about doing better, that would be the end. (Of course, the reality most of us experiences as both the parent and child almost certainly involved bargaining and probably a fair amount of depression.)

The key observation is that most character reactions follow this arc or sequence of responses, in this order, even if the encounter doesn't go through all five stages.

Image: Simon Howden /

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