Paper Graves – being authentic when exploring character’s grief

Grief is an emotion which cannot be contained within a set amount of time, nor within a range of reactions, as it is experienced by individuals in widely divergent ways. Generally it is those writers who have experienced a loss close to them, if they then choose to share it, who will then be able to convey the myriad of emotions surrounding a grieving character. However, just as one does not need to have traveled to Greece to be able to describe its beaches or tavernas to an extent that their readers believe the setting, so too, arguably, a writer need not have experienced a close friends’ death in order to allow their characters to display grief in an authentic manner. By understanding the effect grief has on a family’s/social unit’s physicality and emotions, a writer can then explore ways to portray this in their chosen genre’s manner.

The western world, as a general rule, is not culturally set up for grief. There are few instances in which we accept or deal with it – for the most part, death is a secret and a dreadful surprise and shock for which no-one is equipped or prepared. Death tends to be surrounded by family emotional outbursts of guilt and loss; generally ending in arguments and misunderstandings.

For the most part, there are no rituals or formal acceptance of death or the time after a passing, especially with mainstream society steering further away from the stayed religious doctrine. If there are no religious or sanctioned rituals, then it leaves huge holes within the psyche of the individuals and this can lead to some interesting reactions and habits for characters to indulge in (and writers to focus on detailing).

The intensity of grief instantly brings all the past hurts and woundings to the top and is often fuelled by regret and guilt. Those grieving will tend to alienate those who are near and dear and become consumed with the event. If the person who passed on had been ill or old, there can be waves of relief and thankfulness that their suffering has ended. Though this is often replaced with guilt for feeling this.

Its important for writers to understand the complexities of the emotional roller coaster grief can have on an individual in order for them to authentically describe and convey it in their words.

There are technical challenges within writing about grief which other formats such as film or the creative arts are able to portray in more easily accessible methods for its audience. Don’t let this stop you from exploring ways to express grief and the process of bereavement. Grief is not naturally static and writers tend to find it difficult to convey it without getting bogged down in overly complicated descriptions of windswept moors or flapping curtains.  A writers challenge is to be authentic to the emotion but to also move the narrative along.

In understanding the relationships and interactions of grief, writers can then begin to weave their craft around the theme. Structure can reflect the grief in its various forms. Your story could begin headlong rushing into events with everything seeming a blur, the detachment and disjointed conversations from those around the characters; the jaggered edges, the rawness of the emotions through conversation and action. Your text can appear spontaneous; keeping it close or near to engage the readers’ emotions. A story can then slow down into the stillness of acceptance, utilizing imagery or metaphors. As an example from a number of novels which feature characters dealing with grief, water is often used as it holds a great deal of symbolism surrounding death and grief.

With many grieving characters there is the need to go back and touch things as a way to remember the passed one or to capture the moments shared. Grief is also full of secrets. A writer can use these to introduce backstory through flashbacks or explanations.

The keenest loss is the loss of senses – the touch and smell of the person who has passed. This can be a great tool utilized by the writer. Tactile and aromas have sturdy anchors within peoples’ minds and will bring the reader closer to the text.

When writing about or portraying grief, things other than the emotions the character is experiencing can reflect their journey. Details of clothing (in some cases a meticulous care or in others a slovenly approach), the environment, particularly the weather, the order and tidiness of the house or places of work can echo how the character is dealing with bereavement and grief without actually telling your readers.

With grief there is the muteness and immobility of the person deeply entrenched in the emotion. However, there is also the drudgery and dreariness of just getting on with what is left of life and the loss of joy and the profound sadness. Anyone who has had an Italian or Greek widow as a neighbour or relative will understand the stoic nature and identity grief can take on for years after the passing. Characters who cling to rituals can become hermit-like, though this can be broken as the accumulated grief explodes as anger and all ritual or normality of routine is thrown away.

Writers, desperate to portray their characters’ emotions in an authentic manner, often steer clear of writing too extensively about grief as there are too many hackney and tired interpretations. Grieving characters experience a range of emotions and none can be classed as “normal” as grief, intrinsically, is individualistic. It is a time of consideration, consuming all physical and emotional time where the character is often unable to do anything else but stare.  Even if a writer has no direct experience with grief, by using the experiences they currently have, coupled with a keen empathy of humankind and their observations skills, it is still possible to depict a character whose grief is raw and real and will connect with the audience as authentic.


2 thoughts on “Paper Graves – being authentic when exploring character’s grief

  1. Love is often written, sung, danced about. You’ve described a visceral experience as universal as love, but so few write about grief authentically.
    Wishing you well, Annie.

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