Why You Should Let Your Characters Blow Their Tops

We live in a world where we ask, “How’s it going?” as a “Hello,” not as a inquiry into someone’s wellbeing.

Happiness is so revered it seems mandated. If a fellow employee asks, “How’s it going?” and you respond with, “I’m alright,” a common response is, “Just alright?”

If you’re one of those people who says, “Just alright?” know that you’re not coming off as someone who’s concerned so much as someone who’s enforcing an impossibly high standard of positivity. Those of us on the receiving end of that question see you as one of those screamers from the end Invasion of the Body Snatchers, calling us out for our nonconformity.

If this isn’t your intension consider the following: if the person you’re asking, “How’s it going?” says they’re alright flatly leave it at that. If they say they’re alright with a pensive downward inflection ask if anything is going on. Those are you options.

Saying, “Just alright?” is the equivalent of saying, “Happiness is obligatory when you’re in my presence, get with the program or be reported to our supreme overlord for emotional auditing.”

Notice how these positivity puritans are depicted in films. In the movie Office Space there’s the waiter with all the pieces of flair who laughs at his own jokes. Golden boys are exalted in real life, but they’re demonized in fiction for a reason, because few of us can relate to them.

We tend to cheer more for characters that lose their composure, not just because vulnerable characters are more relatable, but because we wish we could break down more. Society pushes us to put our most logical feet forward. We have to pretend we’re not emotional creatures.

This is why we get outburst envy when we watch movies. We root for characters who give into their madness, who get drunk and flap their tongue at the Thanksgiving table, who screamed at ex lover’s windows from rain slicked streets, or tell their bosses off in the middle of a meeting.

Occasional outbursts can be healthy productive experiences. The fanciful philosophers at The School of Life made an excellent video illustrating this point.

As writers we should illustrate the value of emotional explosions.

Why Writers Should Embrace Moments of Madness 

We all aspire to have eventful lives, but nothing so eventful as a story. Stories are not safe places to be. Stories break routines, force heroics, and personal change. Stories make characters evolve or perish. Most of us try to avoid those risks. We build up support systems, blend into our backgrounds, and nest in our homes. Stories run the risk of burning all those things down.

If you’re a storyteller you can’t allow your characters the luxury of an uneventful life. You must be cruel to your underlings if they’re ever going to learn anything. Its your duty to plant minefields throughout your characters’ journeys, moments where their conflict makes them throw up their hands.

In life we have so few opportunities to breakdown and have it be positively received. We fall apart in private. We quietly lose our minds in the pages of journals. We talk to ourselves with the bathroom fan on. We sob under the covers.

It’s hard to ask for emotional support without conveying the full extent of our personal devastation. Sometimes we want the world to know we’re not okay. We just suspect that we’re not sympathetic characters to strangers. We assume that most people see someone drowning and think, “That person is going to take me under with them.”

We bottle it in and explode vicariously with characters on screens. Look at how free the actor looks dancing in the courtroom, mooning the jury, flicking off the judge. See how well they handle that gas can as they both figuratively and literally burn their last bridge. Witness how at peace they seem when they quit their job with a freak out set to song.

The workplace is one of the areas where we’re all expected to keep up appearances that’s why it’s so gratify to watch characters clock in wearing all their ailments.

The movie Fight Club resonated so much with me because it was all about someone who stopped faking it and wore his hurt on his face. “Yes, these are bruises from fighting. Yes, I’m comfortable with that. I am enlightened.”

Fight Club has one of the best quitting scenes ever put to film:

I’m also a fan of Kevin Spacey’s resignation from American Beauty?

And who can’t get behind Ron Livingston’s candor in the movie Office Space?

Even if you love your job there’s something so satisfying about watching someone abandon societal expectations.

Embrace the Insanity

Don’t be afraid to write eccentric characters who keep it crazy all the time. These characters exist to kill sacred cows, rally against authority, and moonwalk over the line. They give viewers a vicarious sense of freedom.

It’s part of why Deadpool broke box office records. Deadpool couldn’t care less about respecting social mores, keeping it together, or saving face. He’s unhinged. He keeps it real despite the consequences. Sometimes we wish we could be like that and get away with it. That’s why we crave a little madness from our art. It gives us an escape from the pressures of our lives.


Closing Thoughts

In real life people who always freak out are no fun to be around. They make every environment hostile. They have too many triggers to keep track of, and everybody has to walk on eggshells around them. There’s a reason they don’t get invited to parties, but in a film or book, they are the guests of honor. We root for their rudeness, because they are our pent up proxies.

You know that tell-off speech you have on the tip of your tongue? Why not write it down and address it to a fictional foe? If you feel too much pressure, why not write a character who willfully betrays everyone’s expectations of them? If you feel like you have to hide your true self, why not write the public panic attack you wish you could have?

We so often fail to acknowledge the severity of our emotions. Why not write characters who are brutally honest about their own, who shoot fireworks when they lose their tops, and tell it like it is? Why not let your characters freak out for you? Let them tell the world that you’re mad as hell an you’re not going to take it anymore.

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