The other day, my Little One and her friend were going over a story they were writing, when my ear caught a dialogue tag: “she shouted angrily.”
Naturally, I butted right in. And unfortunately, my advice was not taken to heart by my Little One’s friend, who, I gather, had originally written the line and who actually loved Twilight. On reflection, I probably should not have butted in, or else my advice might have been more welcome. Too bad a line like that rubs me so raw, so fast.
That was not just a random jab I just took at Twilight. Look at Twilight on Amazon, and search for “angrily” with the Search Inside This Book feature. You’ll see 8 matches, most of which ought to have been edited out, if either Stephanie Meyer or her editor had displayed competence. To compare, Talyn has 0 matches for “angrily,” and Hawkspar has but one, which itself might have been edited but at least is not in a direct-speech tag.
I explained to the girls that you should never say, “she shouted angrily.” Because you should avoid adverbs. Instead, use strong, meaningful verbs that show what you want to convey. Use a relatively strong verb that demonstrates her anger, rather than a relatively weak verb, shout, together with an adverb that attempts to append to what’s missing, almost as an afterthought. Dump as much meaning into the verb as you can. So for example, “she raged” is much better than “she shouted angrily.”
Better yet, make her sound angry and shouting in the words that she says and the way that she acts. Then you don’t need a speech tag at all. (Or you can just use “she said.”) Actions show; adverbs tell.
Then it occurred to me to consider: how exactly does one make a character sound angry? Which is the subject of this post. The process is pretty straightforward, actually.
What Is “Angry”?
First, you have to understand what anger is and what happens inside a person’s mind when he’s angry.
Anger is an instinctive reaction that comes from the perception that one has been invaded in some way and is otherwise helpless to prevent it. If someone disses you, or if he physically attacks you, or if he threatens your community or your sense of identity, all of these can produce anger. This is why hurt and anger commonly go together.
When a person becomes angry, his heart beats faster to push more blood to different parts of his body, adrenaline flows through his system, his muscles become stronger, his attention focuses. It’s the “fight or flight” response that we and our animal cousins use to respond to a life-or-death crisis situation.
It’s the lion chasing the antelope: the lion is dumping everything she has into her attack, while the antelope has become one with his escape. Meanwhile, unnecessary systems shut down. Digestion, healing, fighting disease, all go on the back burner. Reproduction– This is no time to think about sex. Later, if you can avoid becoming dinner, then you can consider whether you want to procreate. In fact, it’s no time for thinking at all, because thinking takes too long. Later on, the antelope can sit down and analyze his escape route and countermeasures. But for now, his brain rewires itself to short-circuit his decision-making functions, instead connecting his perceptions directly through his emotions to his legs. Because the one who reacts the fastest, lion or antelope, he will win, and the other will die, either of soup or of starvation.
The same thing happens in a human when he faces a stressful situation. There’s an activating event that triggers some perception, which her brain automatically pattern-matches with experiences and skills she’s learned in her past. This past experience is usually not a traumatic event, although it could be. Usually, it’s just a something that she’s gotten used to. And now, circumstances are triggering that pattern that’s been set down in her subconscious.
Maybe, while she was growing up, her mother would repeatedly ignore her and then tell her she was not worth speaking to. Maybe her mother just meant to get her to stop nagging, like little kids are wont to do. But it didn’t work. And now, any time she perceives that she is being ignored, even if that’s a misperception, she overreacts, butting into other people’s conversations and making herself into a royal pain the ass.
Personify Your Character’s Tunnel Vision
So if you want your character to sound angry, demonstrate her anger through the things she focuses on and how she responds to them.
She ignores subtle perceptions, instead focusing on the object of her anger.
She refuses to listen to reason, because the reasoning centers of her brain have been short-circuited.
She misinterprets benign circumstances as possible threats.
She acts out physically, as in a temper tantrum.
She tries to escape the situation, or deny that it doesn’t exist.
She assigns blame, rather than asking how to fix the situation.
These are just some quick possibilities, but I hope they give you a feel for what I’m getting at.
A Quick Example
This post is running long, so one quick example, from one of my new all-time-favorite books, Talyn, which you can expect me to quote from repeatedly in the coming years.
On page 329, we read:
“I’m sorry,” Gair whispered, and put an arm around Talyn’s shoulder, meaning to offer comfort.
She jerked away, wordless, and sat on the cold, damp stone, her legs crossed, her hands resting on her knees in an odd attitude, and she closed her eyes.
Gair might have guessed that she was praying, except that was not how Tonks prayed.
There’s a lot happening here, and a lot of relevant facts that you don’t know unless you’ve read the whole story up to this point. But even if you have no idea of why Gair would offer Talyn comfort, what had happened to Talyn, or what she was doing, you can see that something is not right with her and that she does not accept his comfort. You have no idea why she might hate him or be upset with him, but you can still feel it in her wordless actions.
Later, on page 400, Gair sums up the situation thusly: “She healed herself of much of the damage they did. But healing the soul is a chancier thing than mending flesh and bone. And anger remains. After an ordeal such as hers, anger holds close to the bone.”
So one of the manifestations of Talyn’s hurt and anger is that she shuns Gair. Feeling the destruction of her community and her way of life, she makes an alliance of necessity with Gair, whom she still doesn’t trust. But she ends up dumping more than just that into how she treats him. It’s not about him; it’s about her, about her hurt and anger from what had happened to her and her people.