Unwrapping a character’s emotions
Emotional reactions are at the heart of crime fiction. Why do people – myself included – love to read mysteries? I believe it is because the books often deal with the ultimate human experience. Death. They allow the reader to react to death. Reading is a way of processing, understanding and, perhaps in a tiny way, preparing. We want to read about the policeman or physician who deals with death daily and understand how their public and private reactions might differ. We want to experience – albeit vicariously – these moments from a variety of perspectives, including one that might be our own. In 1969, Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance as the stages of grief in her book On Death and Dying. Growing up, my father spoke about these stages in conjunction with his practice. He was an emergency room physician, and I remember him saying that no one should rush into a waiting room and be told that their loved one died in the car crash. There were important intermediate stages – a nurse or staff member telling the family that it was serious, perhaps the move to a private portion of the waiting room, medical personnel speaking to the family and explaining the critical situation, perhaps asking if they want a member of the clergy to join them, then, ultimately the final news. My father acknowledged that in the emergency room these stages might occur within a few minutes, but he felt that people needed at least a chance to touch upon the stages of grief before the jolt of finality. Contemporary mystery novels usually involve death and I try to think about these stages of grief when writing. The stages might move swiftly, or takes years (or forever) to achieve, but they do provide an emotional path. The emotional path can be in response to the action of the book, or can trigger the crime at the heart of the novel. Of course, the stages are not necessarily linear or universally experienced, but for a writer – or anyone – they provide a framework for understanding.