Novelists often look to history and geography to help with their writing, but they shouldn’t forget science, even if they’re not writing science fiction.
Some ideas stand the test of time, others come and go out of fashion, or are superseded by other ideas.
The idea of electrons in an atom orbiting in discrete paths around the nucleus like planets around a sun, for example, is now considered obsolete, replaced by the wave structure of matter.
Other ideas do stand the test of time. The Tragedy of the Commons, for example, is still as valid as when Garret Hardin proposed it back in 1968. Likewise, in her book On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross came up with a model of the five stages of people go through to cope with death or terminal illness.
The stages are:
Denial – The “This can’t be real” stage.: “This is not happening to me. There must be a mistake.”
Anger – The “Why me?” stage.: “How dare you do this to me?!” (either referring to God, the deceased, or oneself)
Bargaining – The “If I do this, you’ll do that” stage.: “Just let me live to see my son graduate.”
Depression – The “Defeated” stage.: “I can’t bear to face going through this, putting my family through this.”
Acceptance – The “This is going to happen” stage.: “I’m ready, I don’t want to struggle anymore.”
The model is as valid today as it was back in 1969 when Kubler-Ross proposed it.
I have to say that everyone I know, myself included, who has gone through a grieving process, goes through these five stages. No exceptions.
People move through the stages differently. One person may spend months grieving, another years. The stages also overlap. There is no, “I have stopped denying it, now I’m angry,” moment. It’s more a gradual realisation that you have moved from being alternately disbelieving/angry to angry/bargaining.
So how can we use this in our writing?
Any character who loses someone they love will go through this grieving process. Even your story characters.
Obviously, you don’t want to do grief-by-numbers scenes in your novel, but character-wise, you know some things will happen.
- There will be a period of disbelief
- At some stage the character is going to feel angry that their beloved has died
- They should eventually come to accept it.
What you put into the story is up to you, but if your bereaved character doesn’t respond to the death in a manner the readers expect, then the readers will lose empathy for the character. You don’t have to be predictable. Let’s take the following (admittedly cliched) scenario.
Your heroine is the queen of a small country at war. Her husband, whom she loves very much, is mortally wounded in battle. She sits by him as he dies and they tell each other how much they love the other. The king asks her to finish the war. She vows to do so, for his sake.
The rest of the book covers her struggle to win the war.
If she doesn’t spend part of the book missing her beloved. If she doesn’t even get angry with him for going off and leaving it all for her to do, then I won’t think much of her as a protagonist.
“But,” you might say, “She hides her grief by concentrating on fighting, so she doesn’t have to think about it.”
For a whole book?
No way. That grief will spill over occasionally, and where she is in the grieving process at the time dictates how she will react.