Characters Bottling Emotions

@knightedwriter asked: “I have this character who gets into a stressful situation and has a history of emotional abuse. He bottles his emotions. I’m having a lot of trouble figuring out how he should respond to situations, especially as his stress builds and he starts to break. He’s not the POV character.” 

I’ve gotten similar questions more than a few times recently and I think there’s something to be said for characters who don’t wear their heart on their sleeves are harder to write about when it comes to showing emotion. 

That’s the point though, they’ve got personalities that just don’t like showing any kind of vulnerability and it makes sense. No one wants to look or feel vulnerable. I think though it’s a matter of somehow letting the reader know, even though they put on a big tough exterior, they are crying on the inside. I can think of examples but at the moment the only ones that come to mind are the characters in The Secret History by Donna Tartt and I don’t want to give anything away there for those of you who haven’t read it. Generally speaking though, you might be able to figure out just how badly a character is hurt by seeing their hopes and aspirations and then when they try to say how their fine after we know the proverbial rug has been pulled out from under them, we won’t believe that they’re really fine. We know in our hearts they will cry sadly to themselves later on when they are alone. 

If they just bottle up their emotions and don’t really try to get over it or deal with it, that’s where we’ll start to see an escalation. So say your character is struggling with school work, she already has a college in mind and really wants to go, but really it’s a reach to begin with. That means every failing grade she gets after that point might be a harder hit. If she just keep ignoring the bad grades and thinking, well maybe still I can get into this college, she still hasn’t made a plan to figure out how to get a passing grade in history. 

The problem is just going to get worse. It might be at the end of the term where she sees that because she never tried to improve that grade in history, it’s destroyed her grade-point average and effectively made her dream college out of reach. It’s the act of not dealing with something that has made the problem just that much worse. And why hasn’t she been dealing with it? Well, there can be many reasons, but for this example, it’s a hard class. She doesn’t want to face the thing she’s been struggling with. It makes her feel inadequate. It’s stressful. And there will come a point, that by not dealing with it, and still holding out hope for a college that’s become much further out of her reach, that she will hit her breaking point and have to face the problem head on. She’ll have to look at different colleges and address what happened. 

The point is, she might have acted fine with each new failing grade in her history class. She might have even ignored her teacher’s notes that said, come see me after class. She might have made excuses not to study. She could come up with every excuse to hide her insecurity and struggle with learning something that felt really complicated. She could have bottled her emotions on it pretty well up until it really hit her that its made her college dreams out of reach. That could have been the tipping point where she had to let it all out. 

That’s the thing with bottled emotions. You might not know what’s really going on until the character reaches their tipping point. There can be hints and clues, but the emotion behind it is not going to be clear because the character doesn’t want to show it. There is usually a tipping point though. When those emotions come pouring out, it might be that the nerves they worked so hard to hide are coming out through unexpected behaviors or doing something that feels out of character. 

Like our character who’s been struggling with history, she might not show up to school the day she finds out she didn’t get into the college she wanted to go to. That means, she’s not just skipping history, but everything else, including other classes that she does really care about. Because her emotional state has escalated to such a point, she is more likely to show it more dramatically- or at least that’s what I’ve seen. She might not be doing anything harmful, just eating ice cream on her couch and watching daytime television, but it doesn’t matter, she’s broken her routine and done something out of character because the way she formerly dealt with emotions, bottling them up, is not working. 

This is just one example. I’m sure there’s so many more. I’m sorry I can’t think of any great ones from literature at the moment, I’m a bit under the weather today, but if anyone can think of some great examples I clearly missed, please add them in the comments. It’ll be much appreciated. The example I made up is a little on the simple side, but it does come from personal experience. While there may be other ways to deal with the sudden un-bottling of emotions, this is what I am most familiar with. 

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