Self-Harm, Expressing Anger and Character Development

The title should be enough warning, but, even so, I’m going to be talking briefly here about issues that make me uncomfortable for the same reason that I have to add a trigger warning to the post.

I’m a recovering self-harmer, and, unsurprisingly, this makes me see the world in a different light to those who have never heard the call of the metal sex, just as people who’ve experienced drugs (legal as well as illegal) see the world in a different way. ‘They’ have the saying “write what you know” to aid realism, and that suggests that we who’ve suffered these things are better able to write them through our characters.


I’m not talking about the contemporary story about the teen whose father drinks and whose mother is never there (or words to that extent), I’m talking about lives like yours or mine, not defined by what we have done once upon a time. I’m talking about how we ourselves, through our own motives and personalities, can write these people and these actions. I’m not defined as a self-harmer. It’s not one of those things I advertise. But, in my time-bomb mind, one part of me lurks, waiting for anger to release and destroy hope.

After all, I reckon a lot of people have had that fury within them. How, though, does this relate to fiction beyond the contemporary or abuse stories?

Well, editing WTCB, I realise that not only does Phillip have a self-harming side – like me, he frequently scratches his palms with his nails when he gets the urge to lash out, as he used to, and the third book in the trilogy concerns itself partly thus – but so does Aidelle. I always knew that she hated her appearance, but in certain circumstances, she takes it a step further.

“Her heels clicked on the kitchen tiling as she craned over the sink, nails scratching into the ceramic. The urge to force up vomit wouldn’t cease.”

We all have the urge at times.

Granted, not that particular one, nor that specific idea of stinging metal on flesh, but I’m talking about the psychology, the idea of harm to one’s self of to others. We are all human, and, unless one is of a very strong self-control, we are all susceptible to anger; part of being human is being angry. Thus, part of being a [human] character is being a well-rounded individual, with different experiences and reactions to the emotion of anger.

But how does one portray a potentially volatile and difficult subject? Just as in any fiction, we writers can’t start stereotyping people who abuse themselves. Gender, age, culture…temperament. I believe it is possible to stereotype certain temperaments or ‘mental illnesses’ (by this, I refer to things like depression – always sad – and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – always angry), but, actually, as I said, we all react differently.

Take my characters as an example. Both Aidelle and Phillip, of similar temperament, eventually push themselves to the point of harm under anger, but this is only after a loss and the depression that follows that. In the usual, Phillip swallows his anger, whilst Aidelle expels hers. Fear combines with Aidelle’s fury to whiten her face and sicken her; some other emotion, like a feeling of betrayal, turns Phillip back into his fighting ball of fury.

Aidelle is outwardly harming whilst Phillip inwardly attacks. And, yet, I cannot give you more of the specifics of their emotions and the when and why they change.

Just as when looking at why a criminal offends, we should look at more than the superficial odds of someone’s actions when creating and writing them. After all, actions are the effect in the chain.

  • Background. And society: does your character come from a society that conceals/represses/looks down on the display of emotion? Or do they speak and act their mind? Do you use contrasting/complementing foils between characters, like mine? One character who is expressive, but another who is impassive.
  • Evolutionary. Especially for the contemporary, one might take into account when trying to understand the motives behind character that humans subconsciously work towards an end – normally their own. Where once one action might invoke a pleasant response because it falls into the exact pattern and request of an individual’s action, the same action might be displeasing a second time because it does not benefit the same individual. People don’t realise these things, you know. Not many of them – not even we Poirotian detectives – actually catalogue how we feel at each and every moment to be consistent.
  • Psychopathology, illness and external change. A combination of the ideas of background and neurology – people can change their actions, can be savage towards themselves and their surroundings, due to a physical change in their, well, neurology and physiology. Sometimes these changes, the befuddled mind, can cause harm.
  • Neurology. A lot more difficult to show in active prose (and we hardly want to be passive and descriptive unless that is the type of fiction one goes about), but if one is writing the psychological route with some aspects of one’s prose, then it would be apt to suggest a chemical imbalance leading to erratic or savage behaviour.
    A hormone imbalance may also be suggestive of aggressive or passive-aggressive tendencies: testosterone, especially, has been suggested – note this is only a suggestion – to affect temperament and action. I’ve indeed considered Phillip’s novelletic change of heart as due to a change in his testosterone levels.

What I’m saying, in total, is: as well as rounding your characters into 3D balls of emotion, action and reaction, don’t just consider that how they act once is how they will always act, even in similar situations. Where once a character might forgive his brother for doing the wrong thing, the next situation, regardless of how much time has passed, he might attack him instead. Yes, consistency is good, but characters are generally human, too, and, as such, are more flexible with their emotions than many writers may first suspect.

It is due to this that sometimes the urges to harm ourselves or others burn strong, but at other times we push them back. Everybody can write these urges into their characters – one simply has to listen.

2 thoughts on “Self-Harm, Expressing Anger and Character Development

    1. Thanks!
      I don’t know whether studying Psychology first made me think I need to put more thought into the psyche of my characters, or whether thinking about characters inspired me to study Psychology, but it means I do get to surround myself with character-relevant ideas, behavioural and perceptive studies. I guess it’s my rant against the flat, cliche heroines of YA fiction! 😀

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