My mom loves to tell a story about how she once prayed for a family in the book she was reading because she forgot for a minute that they were fictional. Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever been that invested in a character’s conflict? Okay, even if you’ve never actually forgotten that a character was fictional, I’m sure you know what it’s like to feel sincere grief on behalf of a character. That’s exceptional writing — when you can make your readers empathize with your characters.
Grief is a very powerful force in fiction, and it’s one of those emotions that readers really have to connect to, otherwise the moment falls flat. But how do you do that? Grief goes beyond surface emotions into the very core of our being. And grief isn’t a one-time deal; it’s something that stays with a person, a community, long past the event that birthed it.
When you show grief, readers feel grief
One author who does this particularly well is Louise Penny. I want to walk you through a scene from her crime novel The Nature of the Beast. Let me set the stage for you: a nine-year-old boy, Laurent Lepage, has gone missing, and a search party of neighbors and friends is looking for him in the woods. (Former) Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his wife, Reine-Marie, are part of the group and encounter parents Al and Evie Lepage at the moment they find Laurent’s body.
As Armand rounded the corner, he saw Al Lepage at the bottom of the hill standing in the middle of the dirt road, staring into space…
“Al?” Armand said, slowing down to stop a few paces from the large, immobile man.
Lepage gestured behind him but kept his face turned away.
Even before he looked, Gamache knew what he’d see.
Behind him he heard Reine-Marie… moan. As one mother looked at another’s nightmare. At every mother’s nightmare.
And Armand looked at Al. Every father’s nightmare…
Laurent’s father was beyond comfort. Beyond hearing or seeing. He was senseless in a senseless world.
Evie was clinging to Laurent, her body enfolding his. Rocking him. Her mousy brown hair had escaped the elastic and fell in strands in front of her face, forming a veil. Hiding her face. Hiding his…
This initial encounter strikes me as really fleshing out the first stage of grief — denial. Check out this imagery:
- ‘kept his face turned away’
- ‘beyond comfort… beyond hearing or seeing… senseless’
- ‘[hair] forming a veil. Hiding her face. Hiding his’
Did you notice the author never comes right out and tells readers the Lepages were so upset by their son’s death they were in denial? She shows this, and the scene is all the more visceral for it. Show don’t tell (or, at least show and tell). You’ve heard it a hundred times, and that’s because it makes for very powerful writing.
While this is true in regard to most emotions, it’s especially true when you’re writing a scene about grief. Grief happens at a gut level; it’s based so deeply in emotion that you need to let readers experience it along with the characters. That’s a thing you’re not going to accomplish purely through exposition.
It’s all in the details
The next section of the passage is about personalizing. Grief is intensely personal and nuanced. The images, emotions, memories, and implications we feel when we lose someone are specifically tailored to that person; it’s a distinct experience.
Despite the culturally accepted (and creatively useful) idea of ‘stages’, grief is not formulaic, so writing about grief shouldn’t be either. Take a look at how Penny addresses this as the scene continues.
Evie’s keening turned into a hum… it was the same tune the boy had hummed two days earlier when Armand had driven him home.
Old man look at my life, twenty-four and there’s so much more.
From behind them, up the embankment and on the road, came a gasp so loud it drowned out the humming.
If you haven’t read this book, you don’t know about Al and Laurent’s shared love of Neil Young. You don’t know that Laurent’s been running around town with a Neil Young cassette tape in his pocket. But even in these few lines you can feel a small window opening into their world, their family. It’s taking shape; it’s anything but vague or formulaic.
Grief is more than a feeling
Another thing to notice in this scene is the progression of the Lepage’s grief. It’s a short scene — only a couple of pages — but still you see a range in their responses. Grief isn’t one-note; it’s varied and it’s fluid. What started with denial quickly morphs into a very physical moment for both Al and Evie.
One gasp, then a heave. And another heave. As Al Lepage fought for breath through a throat clogged with grief…
And then Al dropped to his knees and slowly lowered his forehead to the dirt. He brought his thick arms up over his gray head and locked his hands together until he looked like a stone, a boulder in the road.
Armand turned back to Evie. The rocking had stopped. She too had petrified. She looked like one of the bodies excavated from the ruins of Pompeii, trapped forever in the moment of horror…
It’s unlikely you’ll have the time and space to show your characters working through all the stages of grief, so showing a progression or a range of responses like Penny does here helps to more fully embody the experience of grief in a short time.
Moving forward from grief
Grief changes you. It stays with you. How can you show the aftereffects of grief in your story? Look at how it’s done in Laurent’s case.
[The ambulance] arrived with haste and a siren. And drove off slowly. Silently.
A little while later Reine-Marie and Armand drew the curtains of their home, to keep out the sunshine. They unplugged the phone… Then in the dark and quiet of their living room they sat down and wept.
Because of other things happening in the plot, readers don’t have the luxury of following Al and Evie Lepage through their ongoing grief. Instead, Penny gives us an unforgettable impression of how this grief lingers on into the future. An ambulance speeds to the scene to save Laurent’s life, but it drives away slowly and silently. The Lepage’s friends go home, shut out the world, and grieve for the child that’s lost forever. Can you feel the way this grief follows them? I get the sense they didn’t leave Laurent’s death behind with his body, and they may never be truly free of it.
Grief is one of those emotions in a story that you can’t fudge, you can’t rush through, and you can’t skim over. If you want to write believable characters that readers connect with, show us the shape of their grief, show us where and how and when it touches them, and help us believe that the world and the people of the story are forever changed because of their loss. If you do that, you’ll have readers locked in. And maybe, for just a moment, they’ll grieve too.
What techniques do you use to show grief in your stories? Tell me about a time you were able to empathize with a character’s loss in the comments below.