Do Us All a Favor and Let Your Characters Cry

Writers have a saying: if your character cries, your reader doesn’t. Writers seem to take this to mean that characters can never cry, that a tearful character is not a sypmathetic one, that readers cannot identify with a weeper. But tears are contagious — when watching a movie, I tend to cry if a character does. Still, even if the adage is true and readers don’t cry when a character does , is that so terrible?

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Why “Grief: The Great Yearning” is Important, I started writing about grief when I discovered that so many writers get it wrong. Many novels are steeped in death, with bodies piling up like cordwood, yet no one grieves. The surviving spouses think as clearly as they did before the death. They have no magical thinking, holding two disparate thoughts in their minds at once. (For example: I know he will never need his eyeglasses, but I can’t throw them away because how will he see without them?) The characters have no physical symptoms or bouts of tears that are beyond their control. There is no great yearning to see the dead once more (and this yearning is what drives our grief, not the so-called stages). In other words, we are continually conditioned to downplay the very real presence of grief in our lives. If we don’t see people grieve in real life, in movies, in books, where are we to get a blueprint for grief?

It’s simple enough to deal with the situation. Writers can let their bereft cry, and then later figure out a way to get the readers to cry. For example, if the character cries, is unable to staunch his tears, but later gathers himself together to deal dry-eyed with a story task, then the character’s strength and courage will have a heart-breaking quality about it. Or if the character deals with the task despite the tears running down his face, then that also is heartrending.

When my life mate/soul mate was dying in a hospice care center, I couldn’t stop the flow of tears, but I kept after the hospice workers until they made sure he was comfortable. (They screwed up his drug dosages, so he was in a massive amount of pain, and they wouldn’t give him the anti-nausea pill he needed because . . . why? I still don’t know. He was days away from death. What difference did it make?) They kept wanting to comfort me, kept wanting to ease my pain, but I told them every time, “Ignore the tears, they don’t mean anything. I have the rest of my life to grieve. Take care of him.” I couldn’t stop the tears, but, as I said, they didn’t mean anything (well, except that I was sad, in shock, and undergoing an incredible amount of stress). I still managed to do everything I had to do to keep him comfortable, and then later to deal with his funerary arrangements. The following two months, I had to dispose of his effects, clear out the house we’d lived in for twenty years, put my stuff in storage, travel 1000 miles so I could go take care of my 95-year-old father. During most of that time, I was crying (or screaming). Yikes, I never felt such pain and angst, and I hope I never do again. I can’t imagine how I ever survived those months. Yet I did. The point I’m making is that abstaining from tears does not make one heroic. What one does despite the tears — that is heroism. And such heroism will make your readers cry.

Another way writers can deal with a tearful character is to have a POV character overhear the hero sob, but when the character sees the hero a few minutes later, the hero is dry-faced, though perhaps with glistening eyes.

It’s not tears that readers don’t like — it’s self-pity. The surprising thing about grief is that very little of it (at least in the beginning) is self-pity. The questions and worries that beset the bereft are real and have to be dealt with. Ignoring the panic aspect of grief (that the world is forever altered, that there is a huge absence where once there was a presence) is a disservice to your characters and to your readers. You don’t have to let your character wallow — you can use their grief to catapult them to greater efforts. During those first two months when I had so much to accomplish (by myself, I might add), I used my periods of anger to fuel me. When the anger was overtaken by angst, I’d stop for a while.

And forget the “stages of grief” crap. There are no stages of grief, at least not for everyone. The absolutely worst fictional depiction of grief I ever read was “She went through all the stages of grief.” What does that mean? Simply that the author was lazy and didn’t do any research on what grief feels like. Having your character cry might not make your readers cry, but a silly sentence like that won’t make your readers feel anything.

In our society, we seem to believe that tears are a sign of weakness, when in fact they are a necessary stress release. The loss of a spouse is the most stressful thing a person will ever have to deal with. Tears release the hormones that build up in the system. If your protagonist’s loved one is not a major factor in the his/her life, you can get away with no tears, but please, if the loss is a major one, do us all a favor and the poor character cry.

4 Responses to “Do Us All a Favor and Let Your Characters Cry”

  1. Joy Collins Says:

    It all goes back to the fact that most people do not understand grief unless they have gone through it. And grief over the loss of a soul mate is different [in my opinion] than even “just” the loss of a spouse. Not all spouses are soul mates. I think our society can’t deal with real grief so we get the stereotyped version in books. That’s why we need to speak out and educate people. I do know from now on I will always give my characters real emotions, assuming I go back to writing – right now it’s still very hard. I can journal my emotions and blog about them but delving into a character who has to emote is another story. I still don’t have the energy for that.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I’ve talked to grief therapists who were stunned to find out what grief did to you after the loss of a soul mate. It truly is unimaginable unless you’ve been there. Maybe our efforts to educate people will be unsuccessful, since they will assume we are exaggerating, but at least, when/if it happens to them, they will be prepared for the onslaught of physical and emotional reactions.

      I have written a short story and a few chapters for a collaborative novel, but mostly I stick to blogging. I have neither the energy nor the focus to write a novel yet.

  2. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    I think it is context more than anything else. I have heard about firefighters who only register the job when they are on duty. Going into a burning building, they might see terrible sights such as a child who is beyond saving because he or she is mostly a blackened corpse. This firefighter must push aside any feelings he might have because there might still be someone alive and in desperate need of his help. He can’t waste time then and there on someone he can’t save. Afterwards, the same firefighter might burst into tears over a bottle of scotch with his mates but that’s when he is off duty and knows for sure he’s done all he can for the victims of the fire. If he were to burst into tears at the sight of that blackened child he might not have been in shape to save someone who could be saved.
    Also, a police officer, male or female, hangs tough while on duty. You wouldn’t want a police officer to be tearful when lives, including their own, are in danger. No cop wants to let down his or her partner.

    The 9/11 rescuers at the twin towers had tearful moments, for sure, but only after they did all they could do.

    What i am saying is that there is a time and place for tears and sometimes you just have to get on with stuff beforehand.

    Too few tears might spoil a story but too many tears can be unrealistic in certain situation.

    My grandparents were British so maybe I have inherited a stiff upper lips. I didn’t cry when my mother was in hospital because I wanted to help her by keeping her cheerful even when I knew the diagnosis was bad. I did, however, cry at her funeral.

    My thoughts at any rate.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Rod, You make good points, as always, and give me much to consider. When writing this post, I wasn’t thinking of people dealing with loss in the line of duty, I was mostly referring to more personal grief, such as the loss of a spouse. A person’s reaction to stress and loss do vary, so tears in a novel are not always appropriate. Firefighters and cops often bury their grief behind black humor, but still, if they lose a wife who meant the world to them, hiding behind black humor would not be appropriate, even among their own kind.

      I think mostly what I want is for writers to consider how their characters grieve and not just dismiss the possibility of tears because of a silly (and possibly untrue) adage. Discussing the topic, as we are doing here, is a good start.

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