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Characters (and people) get angry at all sorts of things that might not make sense to the outside observer: Marty McFly and the word "chicken," words that are terrible slurs to one population but totally normal to others, overreactions due to mental illnesses, etc.

I feel like I have a relatively good grasp of how to portray anger in third person, rational or irrational. Readers are used to other people reacting differently than they would, as long as the character is consistent. However, if the writing is in first-person it seems that I need to take the reader.on the same journey of becoming angry.

How do I show the internal monologue of a character becoming angry? How completely do I need to evoke the same anger in the reader that the character feels?

Edit: @Rand Al'Thor, @Galastel, and @wordsworth all have excellent answers, but I chose @Stilez 's answer because the examples made everything more clear to me. Even though the trigger is irrational, the narrator's justification sounds like something a character would say for rational anger as well.

16 Answers 16

7

Ask yourself (or inquire) what such a person is experiencing.

  • It could be "I remember shaking, and then the next thing I knew was...", and they know how they felt (hot, exhausted?) and are told by others what they did.

  • Could be they had thoughts that they ended up accepting. ("I just had to win. To prove to him that the only sensible way to.drink coffee was by holding the cup not the handle. To smash that stupid coffee drinking look off his face. To rip his Starbucks coffee from his Starbucks face. To smash until he'd never drink coffee the wrong way again. I heard a yell. My own roar of rage. His face. His broken cup, flying midair.")

  • Could be in retrospect, what they learn afterwards.

  • Could be what its associated with, a bad memory. ("That laugh. Same laugh as Simon. Bully. Abuser. Hate him. Kill him. Make him bleed for all his did to me. Sister. All of us. Voices. Cacophony. Crescendo. Eyes. Narrow. Pounding.")

But mainly, using words that show sharp extreme emotion, show what they experience. Not always necessary to explain. Irrational rage might have reasons, but the big part is the experience.

  • 4
    That Starbucks example is brilliant. – TMuffin Aug 29 at 1:36
27

To the person experiencing anger, it won't appear irrational. To them, there's a very good reason why they're angry, why they're infuriated. What you need is to show the reason.

Now, the reason might not be what's right in front of them right now, causing the anger to appear irrational to the outsider. It might be that this last event is just the last straw, it might be that for whatever reason your character sees an event as bigger than it really is, it might be that the reason resonates with some inner fear or insecurity the character carries. But whatever it is, the reason exists.

It might be that later the character might consent they've overreacted, or vented their anger at the messenger rather than the person they were truly angry with, or something similar. But they would never say there was no reason for them to get angry in the first place. (Unless it was all over a misunderstanding, in which case it's still not irrational.)

So, if you're portraying anger in first person, it's not irrational anymore.

As for internal monologue, once the anger is not irrational, but understandable, @Amadeus is right, anger is an emotion - not a thought. You don't need much by way of internal monologue. And you don't need to evoke the same anger in the reader. The reader needs to understand it, but not necessarily feel it.

  • 5
    "if you're portraying anger in first person, it's not irrational anymore" - I don't agree with this part. It's not irrational to the character, so you can't describe it as irrational, but you can still have them do things that anyone else would realise are irrational. If that creates a distance between the character and the reader, so be it - such a distance can even be used as a literary device itself! I've posted my own answer from a different angle :-) – Rand al'Thor Aug 28 at 16:52
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    I don't think it's unusual for someone to realize that their own anger is irrational -- especially in retrospect (which first-person perspective usually is), but sometimes even in the moment. Logic doesn't always dictate emotions. – ruakh Aug 29 at 22:00
18

Well, you can try using short words to display bouts of rage, using really simple words in the speech with a slurry of verbs scattered intermittently. You can also emphasize repetition because people who are angry often can't forget about the past and think the same things over and over again.

For example, you can say something like

"I remember being on the fence. One day. One evening. One backyard. I was on the fence in the morning. And that was all I thought about as I reached out for my bag, slinging it over my shoulder. It was over my shoulder, all right; it was secure. I could only picture the fence standing in the way of my shoulder as I parted glances at passersby."

I have no idea what I wrote, but the usage of simple words and thoughts of the past repeating over again (try to add some variation though) can be indicative of anger.

You can also ask a lot of questions to demonstrate impatience such as, "Where were the service workers that should have helped me by now?"

  • 2
    Nice use of rhythm! There is something to remember here. – laancelot Aug 28 at 11:22
9

A trick I have learned and have been practicing recently is to stop every now and then and observe myself living in the moment instead of just living it. Its hard to do, but gets easier as you practice.

When you are in a moment where you are angry, try to stop and take note of what your own inner dialogue is. What are you thinking? What do you wish you could say, but are holding back? What is happening to you physically? Do you grit you teeth or get a headache? Are you being rational? Use this information to enhance your characters inner monologue.

Use short sentences to evoke impatience. Don't forget to include the physical reactions we have when we are angry. You can also include past experiences that trigger anger or make it worse.

8

Personally, I don't think there IS an internal monologue; irrational anger is all feeling and emotion, perhaps single words, and I would describe those, not try to transcribe those thoughts. The dialogue that goes with these feelings is primitive at best, and cannot capture the depth of feeling associated.

I've seen that tried, and it comes off flat to me. Describe the feelings, in first person describe the feelings you are having at that time. The irrationally angry person wants to break something, hurt someone, force the world into compliance, their imaginings are about doing something, beating somebody to a pulp.

Internal dialogue of actual thoughts cannot capture the rage they are feeling. I'd just go with "I felt like xxx" and "I wanted to xxxx" etc.

7

Naturally, this is a great opportunity for "show, don't tell". You can't describe a first-person narrator's actions as irrational; you need to show somehow that they're irrational. So, how to do that? I'm going to offer a couple of counterpoints to Galastel's answer which argues that it's not irrational from the narrator's viewpoint.

  • Omit things that the character should be aware of. Irrational anger often involves blindness to any consideration except what's making you angry. If you show them acting in a way that ignores obvious consequences, for instance, then you don't have to actually mention those consequences - any reader who's not blinded by rage will see them, AND see that the character is not seeing them.

    Think of, for example, someone who loses a computer game and smashes their computer in rage. They're not thinking of the value of the computer, the cost of replacing it. They're not getting things in proportion. If you can show your character acting in a way which is clearly out of proportion to what actually triggered their anger, then you don't need to say so.

  • Create an unexpected distance from the character. This suggestion might be somewhat out of left field, but if done well, it could work as a shocking way to drive home the irrationality of the emotion. Your readers are used to identifying with this character, expecting to continue being able to do so. Make the character suddenly more distant, less identifiable - shock your readers into feeling a distance from them which emphasises that they're going overboard.

    I'm not sure of good suggestions for how to do this, but it's at least a new way of approaching the problem. If you usually show this character's thoughts explicitly, you could stop doing that: just describing their actions might even fit well with the numb thoughtlessness of someone consumed by rage. As a nuclear option (and this is really frame-challenging your question), you could even consider switching briefly to third-person narration to accentuate that "distance". A surprising amount can be done to affect the mood of a piece of writing by simple things such as changing tense or narrator.

An example which keeps coming to mind is towards the very end of the book Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It's not first-person narration, but we see the main (essentially only) viewpoint character completely losing it, screaming and smashing things, in response to a traumatic event. You might be able to pick up some ideas just from reading that chapter.

5

On illustrating the anger via the character's internal monologue:

There are many good suggestions here already! I particularly like @Rand 'alThor's point about the tunnel vision one might experience during extreme anger-- your character will react to the trigger out of proportion to normal considerations for the situation, the consequences, the bystanders, etc. Here are some others I think are key:

  • Help us feel the rage. The character's physiological responses can be felt; try to phrase it as a visceral, specific experience rather than a more generic description of the symptoms. ("I could feel my face heating up so much my cheeks began to tingle, and acrid saliva pooled beneath my tongue." vs. "I was getting so angry my face turned red and I was spitting mad.") Look for descriptions of the sensations one might experience with a "fight" response (as opposed to "flight").
  • Establish a feedback loop. If the anger is irrational, something about it must be out of proportion to the problem. Why does this happen to your character? A logical, removed view on the situation won't work, so allow the logic to be lost in favor of swirling emotion. Let your narrator's mind loop back to the same outrage over and over, feeding the anger as though a new insult had actually been delivered each time. Or have the latest trivial problem trigger feelings of anger and frustration about prior or ongoing problems, and conflate them in the character's mind.
  • Feelings of frustration are often important to an uncontrolled angry response, though I think there is some rationality to them. If your character can't fix the problem or vent, the problems will fester as frustration with the situation. You can indicate this in passing with some brief introspective searching for an answer, or rhetorical but unconstructive questions like "WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?" But this is only a stepping stone to the angry outburst.
  • Move to action. As the pressure valve hits critical, the self-analysis needs to drop away. (Hulk smash!) If your character lashes out physically, they aren't processing anymore-- give us the action in short, violent bursts of declarative statements. Use the rhythm and texture of your words to evoke the events. Percussive consonants can be aggressive, particularly on stressed syllables. (Think about all the best swear words.) If your character makes repeated gestures like punching or bashing their head into the wall, echo it with the meter of your words: ("I slammed my bedroom door to get away from that two-timing, smarmy asshole, but there the bastard was again, now smirking at me from his glossy movie poster! Argh, I could not get away from him!" [build up to it, and then...] "I punched his stupid lying face, hard, harder, until the veneer of the cheap door splintered and my knuckles were scraped bloody.") Note that this is a way to interweave narration and the internal monologue-- you learn the actions that have been taken, but they're punctuated by the character's thoughts (in my example, "stupid lying face" is the monologue happening simultaneously with "punching," hard and harder). This is a way of handling "close" narration, when you are very much in the character's head-- which is what first-person narration tries to maintain throughout.

On manipulating the reader's emotions:

I don't think you need to make the reader experience the anger the same way the character does. Most readers are unlikely to get very angry unless the injury to the character is a triggering topic for a given reader. But you can get them invested in the outcome of the anger and thereby build tension. Give the scene and the players in it stakes that the reader will care about. Does the irrational outburst damage a key relationship? Does it close a possible opportunity or plot pathway for the story? Use dramatic irony to your advantage by making the reader dread the escalation and its consequences even as it's happening.

Here's another aspect of irrational anger to consider:

When you are dealing with a first-person narration and the POV character is being irrational, you have an unreliable narrator, i.e., a character whose point of view proves to the reader to be untrustworthy.

Even if your character usually provides a reliable perspective on their story, they might have moments where they slip into a less balanced viewpoint; a bout of irrational anger would be the perfect place to nudge the reader away from implicitly believing your character's narration and instead guide them toward a realization or a reminder that the reader is only getting one side of the story. If you want to avoid that you'll have to provide at least a significant trigger for the anger, even if it doesn't really justify all of that rage.

This article has a lot of useful information on writing and capitalizing on an unreliable narrator: What is an unreliable narrator?

3

I would suggest the following:

  • Uncontrollable bad thoughts about the object of anger, particularly ones that are not rational.
  • A sense of disassociation, where the narrator seems to be observing himself or herself from the outside --and is perhaps surprised by his/her own actions (or feels not able to control them).
  • Physical sensations such as heat, tightness, dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, etc.
  • +1 for dissociation - someone experiencing irrational anger still has a rational part, often stuck inside, witnessing the tantrum and unable to break in. – gowenfawr Aug 30 at 21:12
2

Sounds like you have never met people with irrational rage. If you have met one, you will never have this problem again. =)

They are all the same... I know at least 3 people with irrational anger and rage issues.

They scream a lot.

Their arguments make no sense. It is usually all about them, and how everyone has wronged them. (short phrases or long phrases, makes no matter. Whatever they are saying only makes sense to them.)

They repeat themselves a lot.

They often tell you how angry they are, JUST in case you can't figure out from their irrational yelling. Because they really want you to know.

They are super self indulgent. They plead with whoever is listening to understand how they have been wronged, when they want to take a breather from the rants.

Most importantly, they will NOT BE INTERRUPTED. They are a volcano, blowing up. There is no stopping them. if someone tries to interrupt, the rage is redirected at the interruptor. Because they just want to engage, engage anyone, anything.

And it doesn't really matter if it is 3rd person or 1st person. if you know what makes an angry person .. you can describe it.

  • There are definitely some good points here. I'm also amused, because not only have I met people with irrational rage issues (doesn't every little kid have them at some point), but I have irrational rage sometimes and you would never know it if we met in person. Yet clearly I'm still stuck on actually writing it – TMuffin Aug 29 at 1:35
1

There are several options. Others have hit on some really good ones, but here's a few more:

One, use short, emotionally-heavy words with (im)proper inflection.

Two, you could break the scene down into connected vignettes or a montage, as the adrenaline surge of strong emotion can distort our perception of time.

Three, as an extreme, you could even break into first person describing third person, as people in stressful or violent situations sometimes feel 'disconnected' and as if they're watching themself act.

1

None of the other answers really acknowledge this, but several can work alongside it:

Sometimes irrational anger does not have a target. The person is angry without reason, and is seeking something to blame for their anger.

You could even write this experience in a similar way to rational anger... except that the target is constantly changing, unknown, elusive.

There will also probably be a good deal of frustration to go along with this: frustration at not being able to find the source of the anger, frustration at others for not also being angry (because if they were angry too, it surely would be at the thing making you angry), and even frustration at oneself for being angry in the first place.

On another note, from personal experience (other emotions too, not necessarily anger), I am sometimes aware that my emotions are irrational, but that knowledge does not help me change how I feel, at least in the short term, and in some cases may even exacerbate the situation.

1

Just to add a point related to @Galastel's answer, you can show the character is being irrational by having them defend themselves (in the narrative, dialogue or both) in a way that is, on your part as the author (but not the character's), deliberately bad. Bad how? Here are some options:

  • Their reasons for their feelings are all over the place. This works especially well if they're not given together (provided the anger lasts long enough), since then it seems more like they can't keep their story straight, rather than their having several justifications that support each other. They may even make inconsistent claims about the consequences for the world of whatever they're angry about. Is their issue with its effects on them, someone they care about, or someone they frankly don't care about?
  • It seems like they don't know what they're really angry about, even if they think they do. People often express anger to try to solve a problem, but do they have the wrong problem?
  • Someone in-universe is liable to disagree with their I'm-in-the-right-about-this attitude, in which case there may be an argument about that. Of course, that can also happen when the anger's rational, so how do you show the difference? Have the other person make better arguments. Just switch to temporarily writing them as more sympathetic. How you do this is down to you. You might find it helps to write it in third person, then redraft to reinstate the usual narrator, but with as little of their internal monologue as possible. (Or, if it must come back, compose it of snippets that could have been dialogue, preferably the petulant kind.)
  • Related to that last point, sometimes you have two characters up against each other who are both angry, but they want different things to come from their anger. It might take the reader a while to work out who you intended as "right", or it might not. Any argument Mainwaring has with Hodges in Dad's Army is an excellent example of this. Often they're as bad as each other, but often they're decidedly not. Have a look at some clips to get a feel for how you make one angry person look like they're coming from a position more grounded in the facts than the other does. (With that pair of characters, it could be either one who's more "grounded" in that sense, depending on the episode. It was a great dynamic.)
0

How do you behave when agitated? What do you do. Which little things are done differently? Too much force is used to close a door, answers to people are entirely shorter than they deserve to be, judgements are made too quickly and likely in error. Their temper is simply going off without significant justification and will then begin to spiral out of control.

And Yes, they can be absolutely aware of the irrationality of their own actions. Being aware they they're doing these things will almost certainly feed into them being angry. Everything piling up until they're a ticking bomb waiting to go off with the next thing that goes wrong, or the next thing they imagine goes wrong.

Because even being aware you're irrationally angry doesn't stop you from acting on it. You're angry, in a non rational way, it's going to test your self control. Have your character act rashly and attempt to stop themselves as soon as they realize what they're doing, their impulse control will be reduced considerably.

Further, aware or not of being irraitonal, they'll almost certainly regret what they did while angry. Which feeds into a cycle of regret and self incrimination that can easily keep someone upset. In addition to whatever is happening, have them argue with themselves over their own actions, demanding justification of what they just did. It's a great way to make yourself angrier.

Often times anger is part of a self feeding cycle that people let tear themselves apart. Write someone coming apart at the seams and destroying their life or simply making a situation worse through rash actions they cannot justify even to themselves. Then you have irrational anger.

0

I think the answer actually depends on the nature of the first-person narrative. Is the narrator looking back on these events in a self-aware fashion? That is, is this person now aware that they were irrational? Or do they still think their anger was reasonable, even though it wasn't? Or are they intentionally avoiding comment, just describing the events and the emotions they felt in that moment?

Or, alternatively, is it written in the present tense, as is sometimes done? That allows the narrator to feel the emotions while describing them.

I think having a handle on which of these options is in play will help you decide what to do.

0

Sometimes the character herself doesn't realize her irrationality until later. There's a story in Larry Niven's "Magic Goes Away" universe where they're possessed by a god that devours love and madness, leaving cold rationality behind. They do perfectly reasonable things in the face of character-defining struggles, and don't realize it's out of their own characters until later.

0

One of the other answers mentions "Uncontrollable bad thoughts about the object of anger, particularly ones that are not rational". I'd expand on this to put in the suggestion of simple, unreasoning repetition. (E.g. "Damn him. He's wrong. He's wrong. He'd wrong. He's wrong.") It would signify the weakness of a character's reasoning that they can't expand a thought with logical justification, and just have to loop back on the assertion as if to establish their correctness by simple insistence.

You could also vary the wording without real expansion ("What does he know? He doesn't know what he's talking about. He's an ignoramous. He has no clue." etc.); the shallowness of the variation would make it clear to the reader that that the character is unwilling to plumb the source of their contempt or hatred to any real depth. In my examples I deliberately left out exclamation points, in order to hint at a certain fearful self-doubt, but it could possibly build up to exclamation point punctuation. This repetition could be sprinkled through multiple paragraphs, maybe even as awkward self-interruptions of other thoughts.

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