June 2, 2012

Guest Post - The Bookshelf Muse: Frustration, Your Novel's Best Friend

Thank you to Becca and Angela for being our first guest bloggers! Creating characters in a post-apocalyptic world has been a labor of love. Thankfully, our efforts have been aided by the geniuses behind the Bookshelf Muse who's bountiful writing tools and expertise has helped make this process a little easier. 

We found this post both comical and enlightening, as Dani and Zoe, our survivalist characters, are frequently SUPER frustrated. Enjoy!

Frustration: Your Novel’s Best Friend
By: Angela Ackerman

You're thinking that title must be a typo, aren't you? It isn't, I promise. :) Frustration is awesome.

Sure, as writers, we want NOTHING to do with this emotion. Between critique partners ripping the guts out of our manuscripts to form rejections to a book review that compares our writing skill to that of a lobotomized hamster, frustration awaits at every turn.

We develop coping strategies to avoid it: pep talks before opening email. Chugging Diet Dr. Pepper by the six pack. Sucking on the sweet innards of M&Ms, pretending each one contains a Muse's orphan tears and gives us writing superpowers. *coughs* What, you don't do that? Erm, yeah....me neither.

So, on the keyboard side of things, frustration sucks. But on the page? MAGIC.

Frustrationthat hair-pulling, chair-kicking delightis what drives our novel. It juices our plot, makes our characters twitchy and unfulfilled, and glues the reader to the page. Keeping characters from their goals creates Frustration (AKA Tension, the Heartbeat of a story).

So while WE try to avoid this emotion, it's important we make sure our CHARACTERS don't.  In this state a character reveals who they really are. Frustration is emotional GOLD, forcing them to ACT, which pushes the story forward.  

Of course, no two people express their Frustration the same way, and neither should characters. Understanding their Emotional Range (how they express emotion and to what degree) is key to creating believable emotion. 

When up against a wall, a character might:

Retreat inward
Run from the problem
Try to manipulate/influence
Give up
Get angry
Vent out loud
React with violence
Feel depressed
Lay blame
Seek revenge
Take out anger on others
Berate themselves
Ask for help
Analyze what happened in hopes of understanding
Fall into a bottle, feed an addiction, drink orphan tears
Act like it doesn't matter
Bounce back & try again

Do Reactions Fit the Character? 

A hardened criminal character isn't going to ask for help or have himself a weepy moment. A skittish, shy teen isn't about to rant and rave in the middle of the school, and I doubt a kindergarten teacher would whip out her AK-47 to get her rage on. These things don't belong in the character’s Emotional Range.

Who our characters are at their coretheir values, their sense of self, their confidence levels and insecuritiesdictate how they behave. The hardened criminal is gonna get himself some revenge. The timid teen might blame himself or simply retreat inward. Our kindergarten teacher would rethink the situation and maybe ask for help. Or jump back in because of the try, try again conditioning she promotes in the classroom. These reactions fit their personality types and so are believable to the reader.

Responses to frustration must evolve as the stakes rise, but stay within a logical range. Just like a thermometer, a character's reactions become more and more extreme as the novel progresses until the frustration causes them to explode. But, depending on the character, that explosion will come across differently. The teen might grow frustrated enough to break his silence and open up about what's happening. The criminal may become so blinded by revenge that he takes ludicrous risks, putting his freedom in peril. The teacher could sweep everything off her desk or even quit her job.  In each case, the reaction is extreme, but remains believable because it stays inside that character's Emotional Range.

So the next time you're frustrated as a writer, sit your butt in front of the keyboard and write. Pass it on to your characters and your book will thank you for it. :)

And if you need more suggestions on how to express a character’s frustration, check out Angela’s book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. This resource comes to the rescue by highlighting 75 emotions and listing the possible body language cues, thoughts, and visceral responses for each. Written in an easy-to-navigate list format, readers can draw inspiration from character cues that range in intensity to match any emotional moment. The Emotion Thesaurus also tackles common emotion-related writing problems and provides methods to overcome them. This writing tool encourages writers to show, not tell emotion and is a creative brainstorming resource for any fiction project. 

Angela Ackerman writes on the darker side of MG & YA. She blogs at The Bookshelf Muse, a description resource hub for writers, and is co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, now available for purchase through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and Smashwords. The PDF can be bought directly from The Bookshelf Muse.


  1. Thanks so much for having he here on the blog--love your zombie theme!


  2. Thanks for being so supportive of our blog and for conjuring up such informative, helpful posts that we refer to on a regular basis and are now part of our writing DNA!