Charlie Jane Anders is writing a nonfiction book—and Tor.com is publishing it as she does so. Never Say You Can’t Survive is a how-to book about the storytelling craft, but it’s also full of memoir, personal anecdote, and insight about how to flourish in the present emergency.
Below is the eleventh chapter, “Hold On To Your Anger. It’s a Storytelling Goldmine.” which begins section 3, “Your Feelings are Valid—and Powerful.” You can find all previous chapters here. New chapters will appear every Tuesday. Enjoy!
Your Feelings are Valid—and Powerful
Hold On To Your Anger. It’s a Storytelling Goldmine
Years ago, I was struggling to find something to write. I’d run out of clever ideas—or maybe my particular brand of clever had stopped working for me. I was feeling stuck, confused, at a loss. I sat in front of a blank Word doc trying to brainstorm, and the most I could come up with was a brain-squall. The harder I tried to make storytelling happen, the more frustrated I got, and the worse my struggle became.
Until I finally just asked myself: What am I mad about? And then the ideas just started pouring out of me.
If you listed your top ten favorite novels or stories, I pretty much guarantee at least a few of them got started because the author was pissed off about something, and just had to turn it into fiction. Not only that, but I’ve found the hard way that when I couldn’t easily access any other emotion, I could always find my anger.
And that’s probably truer now than at any other time. If you’ve been living on this planet for the past few years, you’re probably super upset. That’s not always a nice feeling—but it’s a damn storytelling goldmine.
Yoda was wrong: anger leads to everything good. Including a ton of red-hot premises, but also a lot of intensity, and a whole range of emotions. Humor comes from anger (which is why so many comedians are deeply angry people). Great story conflicts come out of accessing your anger, too. And anger can be a way to access tenderness, kindness, protectiveness and other “gentle” emotions. If you can get mad, you’ll never run out of stories.
Neil Gaiman tells the story of an experience that infuriated Terry Pratchett when he and Terry were touring to promote Good Omens. Details at the link, but the point is that when it was over, Neil tried to suggest to Terry that he could stop being angry now, and Terry answered, “Do not underestimate this anger. This anger was the engine that powered Good Omens.” At first glance, this might seem odd: Good Omens is a fairly upbeat book, with a lot of cuteness in it. But like I said, humor comes from anger, and so does satire and an obnoxiously surreal sense of weirdness. Humor is a defense mechanism that allows us to lose our shit without losing our shit, and we’ve all been in situations where we can either laugh or scream.
To be clear: we’re not just talking about losing your shit and vomiting your anger onto the page—though that can be freaking awesome and result in some powerful prose. We’re also talking about filtering your so-called negative emotions through technique, and imagination, and using them as fuel to write all kinds of things—including plenty of scenes that your readers will come away from feeling calm, happy, and reassured.
You can absolutely be angry, and yet write a story that’s not an angry story at all. I don’t usually write about the thing I’m angry about, either—the thing about emotions is they’re content-neutral. You can read the news, get super fired up about all the crimes and atrocities taking place in the world, and then channel all that emotional energy into writing a cute love story between a handsome elf and a frog-turned-prince.
I’ve written some of my sweetest tenderest moments when I was just spitting with rage—because of the alchemy of emotions, whereby every emotion is connected.
Every other emotion is connected to anger somehow
Anger is like a primary color of emotion. If you can summon anger, you can write.
Take, for example, tenderness, or kindness. We’re often at our angriest when we have something to protect or care for—and we all know that feeling when anger gives way to gentler emotions. Think of a mama bear shielding her young: you can feel the anger, but then also drill down to the love right under the surface. Not to mention, we get the angriest at the people we love the most.
Anger easily leads to remorse, too. And introspection and self-examination, as anyone who’s ever gone off half-cocked and left a trail of destruction will testify. Yoda was right about one thing: anger has a direct link to fear, and every rage-out has a kernel of fear at its center.
The reverse is also true when it comes to joy—we’ve all experienced the moment when intense happiness turned to vitriol, because the rug got pulled out from under us. Even empathy can come from anger, because delving into the sources of your own rage can help you understand how others have been hurt and might lash out.
Once you’ve found your way from anger into one of these other emotions, you can skip the “anger” part on the page, unless it’s actually part of the story. If you can find your way from anger to tenderness, then you can just write the tenderness into your narrative. You don’t have to show your work.
For a lot of us, especially people who aren’t cishet white men, anger is a huge taboo. We’ve been taught over and over that we should swallow our outrage. Marginalized people, in particular, are often told to censor our anger, or to act “reasonable” in the face of endless fuckery. When in fact the reverse is true: people from privileged positions should recognize, if anything, that it’s on us to be empathetic, and to listen and pay attention to people’s legitimate responses to structural oppression.
I’ve never been great at expressing anger in real life, except for the occasional moment of snark, or stressed-out grouchiness. I was always kind of the pleaser in my family—even before I transitioned and started feeling all kinds of pressure to act more stereotypically female. But I’ve found that when I project my hottest, most choleric emotions onto the page, only good things happen.
Light some fires
I don’t get all of my story ideas from asking myself what I’m angry about. I don’t even get most of my story ideas that way. But when I am trying to capture a real intensity, that fire that makes stories come to life, it often comes down to reconnecting with my anger. A sense of urgency, desperation, or snarky humor can come out of touching that raw nerve. And when I’m trying to create a feeling of chaos and surprising twists and turns, it’s not a bad thing to plug into that urge to flip over some tables.
And it’s the same when you’re trying to create vivid scenes, with powerful details. The things that make you angriest are also likely to be some of your strongest, most powerful memories, because these things get burned into your brain. You can vividly remember what you were holding, what you were wearing, what you smelled, what you tasted, and everything that was going on in your head during a moment when something really pushed your buttons. And that’s exactly the level of immediacy that you’re aiming for in your storytelling. It’s the intimacy of being right there in the middle of a bad situation.
Plus, upsetting and rage-inducing experiences are the most likely to get turned into capital-s Stories—and if you can remember a time when you did that, you can make that work for you. That process whereby you spin raw sensory input and stream of consciousness moments into an anecdote that you can share with your astonished and outraged friends is the closest analog to what we all do when we try to turn a series of random events into an actual narrative.
And it probably goes without saying that your rage can help you write better villains, as well as figure out scenes where otherwise-sympathetic characters do something terrible or unforgivable in the heat of passion. If you want to get into the mindset of someone who’s taking drastic action, it helps to have a direct line to some drastic feelings.
At the same time, though, your fury is also invaluable for writing about people standing up against oppression, or cruelty. It’s natural to feel pissed off in the face of horrible abuses, like state-sponsored white supremacist violence and organized genocide—like the old bumper sticker says, “if you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention.”
There’s a word for anger turned to constructive ends, and that word is “justice.”
Like we talked about before, you don’t need to write scary shit that’s going to remind you of all the traumatic stuff in the real world—but there’s something powerful about writing about people fighting back, rising up, doing the right thing. Channeling your anger can be a way to cope with trauma. To remind yourself that you have vast untapped reserves of power, and that together we can tear down monuments and take down wannabe strongmen.
Speaking of trauma, I firmly believe that giving yourself permission to get riled up is part of the healing process. During those times when I’ve been really messed up by things that have happened to me—or by the state of the world—I’ve found that I’ve had more rage than I knew what to do with. Channeling that fury into my writing helped me to feel whole, and powerful. And screw anybody who wants to police your anger.
Find what pisses your characters off
As I’ve mentioned before (and will again), I’ve struggled with writing three-dimensional characters. To this day, I’m still prone to write stick figures who just wander through plotscapes without having any meaningful emotional reactions, or making any unexpected decisions. The only way I ever avoid writing shop-window dummies is by second-guessing myself over and over.
At the same time, I found it much easier to write well-rounded, real characters once I reminded myself that they needed to have stuff that stuck in their metaphorical craws. More often than not, when a character was falling flat, it was because outrageous stuff was happening to them and they weren’t being outraged by it. Or else, because they didn’t have enough pet peeves, or baggage, or stuff that they kept chewing over. Often as not, when I have a character who’s not clicking, it’s because I haven’t found what they’re angry about yet.
Finding what makes your characters mad can be the key to giving them life and energy, and a real sense of purpose. See above, re: justice. My favorite fictional characters are the ones who cannot witness evil being done without becoming fired up about it, and I have all the time in the world for characters who will go to the ends of the Earth to right a wrong.
But I also have an immense and boundless love for characters who hold petty grudges, who are still stewing about something that happened to them in seventh grade, or who are just grumpy cusses. A character who is supposed to save the galaxy, but can’t let go of an incredibly minor vendetta, is automatically fascinating. And utterly believable. That’s the great thing about anger, after all: it doesn’t really come with a sense of proportion.
The character of Patricia in All the Birds in the Sky comes to mind immediately. As an empathetic witch who has a profound connection to nature, she ran a serious risk of being a stereotypical hippie earth-mama. Patricia really came to life for me when she was getting torqued, screaming with frustration, and throwing pieces of fresh-baked bread at her friends.
But this goes for most of my characters—as a general rule of thumb, the “nicer” the character, the harder I had to work to find that little nugget of animosity inside them. I’ve found this is especially important for characters who would never dream of actually hulking out. The angriest people are sometimes the ones who never raise their voices at all.
When it comes to some marginalized characters, though, I’ve found the reverse is true. In one of my unpublished novels, a generous friend pointed out to me that one of my supporting characters was a stereotypical “angry Black woman,” rather than the rich and layered character I’d been telling myself I was writing. We’ll talk more about writing outside your own cultural experience later, but when writing people from other cultures, it’s important to be aware that you may have internalized some seriously lazy archetypes from pop culture.
This series of essays is all about surviving rough times by losing yourself in making up stories. And it’s all too easy to think this means channeling only sweetness and light, or tuning out all the negativity in the world in favor of escapist fun. Which is awesome, if that’s what you want to do. But you can also put all of the indignation that you’re bound to feel at living through a truly disgusting time into your creative writing, and it can make your writing stronger.
Charlie Jane Anders’ latest novel is The City in the Middle of the Night, which won the Locus Award for best science fiction novel. She’s also the author of All the Birds in the Sky, which won the Nebula, Crawford and Locus awards, and Choir Boy, which won a Lambda Literary Award. Plus a novella called Rock Manning Goes For Broke and a short story collection called Six Months, Three Days, Five Others. Her short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Boston Review, Tin House, Conjunctions, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Wired magazine, Slate, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, ZYZZYVA, Catamaran Literary Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and tons of anthologies. Her short fiction has won Hugo, Theodore Sturgeon, and Locus awards. Charlie Jane also organizes the monthly Writers With Drinks reading series, and co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz. She is writing a Young Adult space fantasy trilogy, to debut in early 2021.