Today I want to take a minute to talk about characters and emotional outbursts. This is something that came up in conversation recently and like most things that I have a lot to say about and can't get out of my head, I'm gonna blog about it. So let's get right to it, shall we?
This one has a quick reference. We'll call it Arcana's Law of Inverse Emotion because I'm the kind of cocky bastard that names things after themselves. Basically, it goes like this: the more your character reacts in an extreme way to what is going on around them, the less power their emotions have to move the reader (in a novel) and the other characters around them (in an RP).
Emotional outbursts have a couple of different flavors but in this case we're mainly going to deal with anger and sadness.
If someone is full of rage all the time, their anger stops meaning anything. The more times you lose your cool and scream at other people, the more this becomes expected behavior out of you. People are more likely to roll their eyes than be afraid. If someone is constantly sobbing and doing really extra things to display their sadness, particularly if these things are dangerous to their health, people are more likely to suggest they see a professional than try to comfort them or act like they're doing anything remotely reasonable.
And they are right to.
Imagine these extreme emotions are like a spring that takes time to coil back. The longer you leave it to tense up, the punchier the hit will be when you finally let it go. Imagine a stoic character. Now, you're probably imagining the British ideal of a stiff upper lip right now, and you're partly right. It doesn't have to be that way, though. A character can be calm and peaceful and this still applies.
There's a great Patrick Rothfuss quote; "A wise man fears three things; the sea in a storm, the moonless night and the anger of a gentle man."
Or, as TV Tropes would say, OOC is Serious Business.
When this calm character loses their temper, everyone shuts up and takes note of it because they know this person is not the one that does shit like that. That sudden outburst, whether it be in anger or in sadness, is going to turn some heads because it's so rare and off color for this person that it is indicative of something being really wrong with them.
That spring has been left to tighten for a long time and when it snaps it hurts like the dickens.
Now, by comparison, imagine a character who dropped their milk carton this morning and cried over it reacting the exact same way to the exact same thing. That spring is going to cut loose and smack with a pathetic 'pweh'. It's the exact same insighting incident; maybe someone died, maybe we got bad news. It's the exact same reaction.
But whose doing it matters, so everyone reacts to it completely differently.
Mind you I am not saying calm and collected is better. There is a time and a place for characters who are just melodramatic about everything. A friend of mine once played a character who liberally shed happy tears at pretty much everything that ever happened. She got a tiny coffee spoon, and cried because of how tiny it was, and everybody loved her. She was rarely angry, however, so if someone managed to rile her up to the point of shouting you knew you had donked up in a big way.
It is so important to be aware of what you are doing with your character's extreme responses to things! Consider it a form of social currency; if you spend your tears on everything they become worthless so spend them wisely. If you want your character's outbursts to matter you have to earn those moments. You have to show them keeping calm in a crisis and tightening that spring. You absolutely cannot have them losing their cool repeatedly if you want people to take it seriously when it happens.
So stop before you outburst. Ask yourself: When was the last time I did this? Is this warranted? Do I really want to spend this outburst here and not have it for later if something bigger happens?
Breakdown responsibly, kids!
Megan R. Miller