By Rachel Evans
“The hero sobbed piteously over the corpse of her mentor, swearing to avenge him. After an hour of weeping, she wiped her eyes and returned to saving the world, setting her sadness aside until needed again at his gravesite.”
One of my biggest complaints with fiction is how writers handle grief. While slightly exaggerated, the above scene is similar to ones I’ve read in many published books. Grief is often treated in a farcical and clichéd manner, as if it isn’t a struggle.
Accurately depicting grief used to be a challenge for me too. But even though it’s hard to master, it’s a skill worth learning because it helps readers relate to characters. I’d like to share six truths that will enhance your portrayal of grief.
1. Grief Causes a Variety of Responses
If you absorb one lesson from this article, please remember this: crying is not the only response to grief. When I lost a loved one a year ago, I couldn’t cry for days, though I wanted to and felt like I should. That doesn’t mean I’m heartless. I just process grief inwardly instead of outwardly.
Below are a few examples that demonstrate the wide range of reactions people can have to bereavement.
- Numbness: During times of deep sadness, people tend to act on autopilot in the short term, then process the death later.
- Anger: This can be aimed at other people (the doctors who failed to save the person’s life), at God (even if the character doesn’t realize she’s mad at Him), or at nothing in particular.
- Shakiness: You can show unsteadiness through word choice (“she trembled”) or similes (“his legs shook like Jello”).
- Focusing on Others: When my grandfather passed away, my first thought was, Does Mom know yet? Because my own emotions were overwhelming, I concentrated on someone else’s well-being instead.
- Resuming Routines: Amid a violent upheaval, people may seek comfort in tasks that are familiar and “safe,” such as working, cleaning the house, or taking a morning walk.
- Pretending That Everything Is Okay: Grief is viewed as an emotion that should cease or be concealed once the funeral is over. So people mention the news in an offhand comment, then talk and laugh as if all is right with the world.
- Denial: As a more extreme version of feigned nonchalance, some people outrightly deny the reality of death and convince themselves that the news is a joke or can’t be true.
- Falling Apart: After hearing of a death, people may lose sleep, lack concentration, or experience an emotional breakdown (in public or private).
- Crying: Though this isn’t the only response to grief, people do cry. Some cry upon receiving the news, some cry days or weeks or even years later, some cry in private (like me), and still others never shed tears at all.
2. Every Person Copes Differently
No one responds to or recovers from grief the same way, and neither should your characters. By crafting unique reactions, you’ll reaffirm and broaden readers’ understanding of your novel’s cast. They may glimpse a side of the characters they’ve never seen before. Perhaps the heroine who wears her heart on her sleeve hides her grief, or the hardened villain crumbles.
The latter scenario is from the Unblemished trilogy by Sara Ella. Throughout the trilogy, we’re led to believe that the villain, Isabeau, is motivated by a desire for vengeance. But when she returns to her wrecked home, where we think she’ll try to get revenge, she is instead broken with grief. The reveal works brilliantly.
3. Grief Is Normal
As Christians, we’re encouraged to celebrate when someone dies. I agree that we shouldn’t be filled with despair, but we also shouldn’t be expected to instantly rejoice that our loved ones are in heaven while we’re left on earth.
Death is not natural, so it’s perfectly okay for us to be saddened by it, especially as children of God. John 11 records how Lazarus died, and even though Jesus knew He would resurrect His friend, He still wept.
Grief is normal. It’s human. By letting your characters grieve, you’ll avoid creating emotionless robots and remind readers that they don’t have to be stoic either.
4. Grief Doesn’t Fade Quickly
One of the main problems with grief in fiction is that a character is typically heartbroken for a couple scenes and then he’s happy again. But grief does not evaporate because the world needs saving.
Make your character wrestle with his grief. Don’t be afraid to show how it affects his life.
However, don’t pause the plot for a few chapters of unbridled emotion. This will drag the pace. Rather, use the character’s grief as a backdrop for the story’s events. His life has changed forever, and he can only move forward, even if he wishes he could regain the past.
Lauraine Snelling effectively weaves grief throughout her Golden Filly series. The main character, Tricia, doesn’t get over her grief immediately. It affects her day-to-day life, goals, and relationships. It doesn’t drive readers away or stagnate the story. Instead, it engages readers and produces empathy that keeps them turning pages.
5. Dramatic Speeches Are Unrealistic
I’m guilty of writing the “Hi, Dad, ten years have elapsed and I’m standing at your grave, lamenting how much I miss you and what a great father you were” sort of scene. Unfortunately, a speech like this has become a common cliché. If your character visits a loved one’s grave, try toning down the theatrics with the following tips.
- Focus on Memories: In the original grave scene from one of my novellas, my main character spoke to her father. But after a reader pointed out that the monologue was unrealistic, I changed the scene so that she remembers little details about her father without voicing any of them aloud. Now the scene is ten times more impactful than it used to be.
- Silence Speaks a Thousand Words: Silence is far more meaningful than words uttered to a gravestone. It conveys that the character’s grief has settled so deeply into her heart that she can’t talk about it, even when she’s alone and time has passed.
- Crying: Depending on your character’s personality and how long ago her loved one died, she may or may not weep.
6. You Don’t Need to Provide All the Answers
“You’ll feel better in time,” “rejoice that they’re in heaven,” and “you’ll see them again someday” are quaint phrases that don’t relieve grief. I’m not saying these statements aren’t true. They are. But to a person whose grief is fresh and raw, they’re like slapping a bandage on a gaping, bleeding wound.
Instead, walk with your character through the darkness, the questions, and the doubts. Show her suffering from the ache that continually throbs.
You don’t have to tell readers that everything will be fine. All they need is a candle—one small, bright flame illuminating the darkness. A single ray of hope that indicates the pain won’t always be sharp, that dawn will rise at the end of the night, and that beauty exists in the midst of brokenness.
Skirting grief and treating it lightly is easy. But by realistically portraying it through a variety of responses and its lasting effects on the character’s life, readers will form a connection with your characters.
Portraying loss honestly doesn’t stop with the griever, however. You also need to consider how other characters might try to comfort, cheer up, or counsel that person (whether their actions are actually helpful or not). For tips on how to do that, fill out the form below to learn twelve ways characters can realistically react.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 14, 2018. Updated March 3, 2022.
Rachel Evans is a YA author living in Minnesota, where the cold weather gives her the perfect excuse to curl up with a mug of hot chocolate and the greatest Story ever told. Combining her passion for mental health with her love of fairy tales, she endeavors to create hopeful stories for a Grimm world. She is a student of the Author Conservatory and One Year Adventure Novel.
When she’s not writing, Rachel enjoys teaching piano lessons, reorganizing her rainbow bookshelves, cuddling her cat, and playing strategy games with her brothers.
Whoah! This article is awesome! It’s exactly what I needed. I am going through a death scene right now, and I was struggling to portray the grief that follows it
Wow, this is a really good article. I’m definitely saving it to reread when I need it – and I’m definitely going to need it (my current WIP has a surprising amount of grief, over death and otherwise).
But the comments around here are right: grief is felt over things other than just death. A friend going away (not dying, just having to leave), betrayal, something important to them being destroyed, their entire way of life being taken away. All kinds of things.
I know I can relate. My great-grandmother (who’s been staying with us since Christmas) had a stroke in the past couple of months, and had to go to the hospital. I didn’t know whether she would be okay or not. It turned out that she was just fine, and she’s with us again and just about back to normal. But I know I felt a lot of grief that day.
Once I was calm, though, I wrote (in my notebook, I somehow couldn’t bring myself to type it) all sorts of things that I’d felt, that could apply to my characters. How it really does feel like you’re walking in a nightmare (the stories aren’t lying when they say that); how you can keep a brave face until they use the last of their failing voice to tell you they love you and it breaks you; how, even when you’re at peace about it, anyone bringing it up (even to tell you how you helped) makes you feel guilty about not getting there sooner; how a pet like a dog being in the same room with just you helps you let out all the things you want to say; how a single thought or phrase of hope can be a lifeline, and fill your thoughts over and over, and give you courage. And that wasn’t even all of what I wrote down.
Things are fine now, and she’s been back for some time, but my point is, if you’ve ever been through something hard that caused you grief – even if it’s not actually the death of another person – it can help you understand your characters’ grief better, and write it well. And maybe mine can help out some of you.
PS: I will say, when it comes to grief over an actual death in books, or even what seems to be such, one of the most well-written examples is from Two Towers. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it, but I’m thinking of the one that’s not the first one. Everything the character feels and says and does, it just all feels very real.
wow this is beautiful! many of my characters go through not only deaths of loved ones, but losses of their jobs and leaving their old life behind to have a fresh start. this really helped me think about how important those losses are, and how they shape and stick with those characters forever. thank you for this INCREDIBLE article!!! i’ll definitely be saving this for later 😉
Writer-on-pause here. I just lost my little brother a little under two weeks ago. While I know this is intended as writing advice, as someone who is currently walking through grief, this was an affirming and oddly comforting article to read. Grief is rarely portrayed realistically in fiction, I’ve now seen, and I appreciate your wisdom and advice. Thank you.