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Writing a Character with Anger Issues

Characters that struggle with anger management issues are some of the most fun to write, because they tend to be the most complex and tragic. Most often, people include this as a villainous trait to spice up their antagonists, but there are several reasons to be careful with this. Not only is it easy to misrepresent a real mental illness, but it is also a one-step process for making a really flat and predictable character. So in other words, boring.

So how do you approach the idea of creating a character that struggles with anger issues? Well, it’s not as simple as you would think. There are many different ways that anger issues can manifest, and each person deals with it differently. In order to understand your character’s anger, you will need to understand their other personality traits, and how their past worked to shape them into the character they are in the story.

Consider the Character as an Individual

The first thing to understand is that a character exists outside of just their anger issues. They should not just be angry all the time; they should have personalities that are as multifaceted and dynamic as any of the other characters. Their other traits are going to be what defines their struggle with uncontrollable anger.

This doesn’t just mean that you should think only about how they act when they aren’t angry. To justify their rage, you will need a solid backstory that explains (or at least suggests) where their anger manifests from. It could be a single event in their past that left them traumatized, or a long drawn out situation like a toxic or abusive relationship that makes them develop anger problems over time.

When looking at the character’s past, it’s a good idea to take note of exactly what sort of emotion is feeding into their anger. Are they afraid of something, and using their anger to emotionally—or even physically—protect themselves? Did their rage grow out from a neglected childhood? Do they feel great shame for something they’ve done? Do they suffer from other conditions that would lead them to have less control over their emotions?

Understanding your character first is an important step before deciding how that character’s anger will manifest. Everyone experiences things differently, and your character is no different. Once you know what your character has been through and how they perceive the world, then you can move on to giving them a personal struggle with their anger that makes sense for their character. 

Writing Different Forms of Anger

There are several basic ways that anger can manifest itself, based on how a character makes sense of the world. Here are just a few:

  • Outward
  • Inward
  • Passive
  • Chronic
  • Blackout

However, it is important to remember that no two characters are going to demonstrate their anger the same way, and sometimes the same character can react differently based on the situation or trigger. Some people may deal with all the different types of anger, so there’s no reason to limit your character to only one type.

Outward Anger

Anger is most iconic when it is projected outwardly. A character that experiences outward anger is likely to yell or physically lash out at their surroundings. It is often violent, and the character could unwittingly break things or hurt people that they care about. They may throw things, punch walls or people, start fights, or break the law in various ways. Their reaction to rage is to vent it out at anything that comes near them.

Some good imagery for writing a character that deals with outward anger is to have them destroy something like a guitar or a car. Ideally, have them destroy something they care deeply about without thinking, to really stress the kind of control their anger has over them.

Inward Anger

Inward anger is often described by sufferers as “poison.” This kind of anger is often adopted by characters with significantly low self-esteem, or anger issues that stem from guilt or shame. Characters that internalize their anger blame themselves for being unable to control their emotions and often harm themselves as a result.

Some ways to show this in your story is to have the character engage in activities as if to punish themself for feeling angry. Have the character withdraw from loved ones and deny themself things that they enjoy, or even basic needs like eating or showering. These characters can also lash out and hit things, but if you want to stress the uncontrollable nature of their anger, have them break their own hand or hit their head against things when they get angry.

Passive Anger

Passive anger is a difficult thing to convey in writing unless the story is written in first-person, or with significant insight into the character’s intentions. This type of anger often drives a character to say nasty or sarcastic things to drive people away, or to simply ignore problems and people until the anger passes. The character may want to deal with their own anger by angering other people.

Although it can be tough, I think this mindset is a fun one to play with. You could show this type of anger by having a well-mannered character suddenly snap or say something snide as a result of a particular minor trigger, like people folding the corner of a page in a book or chewing with their mouth open. Additionally, it can be an interesting dynamic to have some other characters who are used to this behavior, and some who are not.

This type of anger is like the opposite of inward anger; instead of blaming themselves for the anger, characters project blame onto others. The characters may feel petty or resentful, and do things to punish others for making them angry.

Chronic Anger

Chronic anger is more prolonged than any other type of anger and is generally the result of stress. Your character could be stressed out about something as simple as moving up to college, or it could be a coping mechanism for having to live in a bad situation, like an abusive household, poverty, or addiction. Chronic anger can also be associated with another chronic condition, such as anxiety or depression.

When creating a character that deals with chronic anger, it is important to keep in mind the physical toll all that long-term stress would have on their body. They likely won’t be sleeping well, and they may get headaches often. They may act fatigued or snippy, or get frustrated at the smallest inconveniences. This type of anger is less explosive than some other manifestations, but it can eat away at a person’s resolve over time, breaking them down.

Because the problems that lead up to chronic anger are often severe and drawn out, characters with chronic anger rarely have a good day. I love playing with that trope, however, because the character development and long recovery can be a truly heartwarming journey to explore.

Blackout Rage

Blackout rage is described as one of the most heartbreaking and debilitating forms of anger. It is also one of the most commonly used in media, and one of the easiest ways to mess up an otherwise great character. However, before you dismiss this type of anger as just an old cliché, you should understand that there’s more to it than what you expect from the Hulk (I know you were thinking about him).

The name “blackout rage” does a pretty good job of communicating what this type of anger is like. People that suffer from blackout rage can spiral into an uncontrollable fit of destructive rage when exposed to a specific trigger that sets them off. These people act without regard for their personal safety, or the safety of the people and objects around them. They often hurt themselves and others, and can create serious havoc—especially in a public place.

The reason this type of anger is a favorite among writers is because it is easy to write. If a character blacks out from their anger, they aren’t in control of their body, and they do not remember anything they do while they are blacked out. Stories from the first person can just cut to when the character is coming down from their frenzy, and interpreting the damage they caused.

As you can probably tell, I’m not a fan of the overuse, and often misuse, of this type of anger. It usually results in a character being one-sided, predictable, and antagonistic. Additionally, it creates a negative perception of the condition, which can be harmful to real people who actually suffer from this. However, that doesn’t mean you should avoid writing about this kind of anger. Blackout rage can be a really tragic topic to include in a story, but you should be careful about how you approach it.

My first piece of advice is: don’t trivialize it. Don’t turn blackout rage into a joke, and make sure the triggers that set the character off are significant and meaningful. Also, in my opinion, the regret that follows a fit of rage is a far more interesting way of exploring the condition.

If it works for your story, try focusing on how the character feels about what they’ve done. Can they tell when they are about to slip into a rage? Do they scare themself? What is the first thing they think of when they see the damage they have caused? Build them up to be a sympathetic character, even (especially) if they are supposed to be a villain in your story.

Writing About Anger Triggers

Triggers are an extremely important part of writing about a character with anger issues. To put it as simply as possible, triggers are certain objects, events, or phrases that can cause a reaction in a person. In this case, triggers result in an angry reaction, but triggers can also apply to other reactions, such as panic or grief.

The triggers that apply to your character are going to be extremely specific, based on who they are and what they have been through. The triggers can (and should) be strange, and you can use them as hints to a character’s backstory. For example, a character that is triggered by a specific location may have had a bad experience there. If a character gets angry about loud sounds, they could be afraid of guns or explosions, and using their anger to cope with the fear. If they react angrily to a specific phrase, it could remind them of someone who hurt them in the past.

Anger can also be triggered by an unpleasant surprise. For more information on that, read my article Writing Surprised Characters.

Triggers can also be much simpler than those examples, however. As I mentioned above, it can be as simple as seeing another character fold the corner of a page. These little triggers might just be pet peeves for your character, that grew into something more frustrating. Items are especially important since they can hold on to a lot of sentimentality.

When trying to decide on what triggers will apply to your character, you’re going to need to look at their backstory. If you have their backstory written up somewhere (which you ABSOLUTELY should), save a copy of it, and read through it again. Highlight any significant phrases, people, objects, and locations throughout the backstory. Highlight even the little things, like pencils, lighters, and plastic water bottles.

What do those things mean to your character? How were those items used, and by whom? Did specific items come to represent bad people in their past? Do some locations hold bad memories? Did they start to fear people that are taller than them? Take a look at the same events that caused the anger issues to develop, and see if you can find anything significant that could set your character off.

Once you have a good, long list of potential triggers, start crossing some off. If you don’t think they’ll ever encounter one in the story, cross it off to keep your list tidy. If some triggers seem more reasonable than others, cross out some of the ones that don’t make as much sense. You should probably aim to have around 20 triggers, but it depends on the character and the story.

When you’re happy with your list, make sure you save it and keep it handy while you’re writing. Having a list will keep things consistent, and will help you to better utilize triggers as tools for exploring a character’s psyche and backstory. 

What Causes Anger Management Issues to Develop?

From a psychological perspective, uncontrollable anger is not considered an emotional disorder. Rather, it is considered a symptom of a larger problem or problems, and a way of coping with other emotions that are more difficult to deal with. These problems can take many different forms, so there’s no shortage of options for making your character’s story unique.

I’ve already talked a lot about building your character’s backstory to personalize their experience with anger issues. However, it can sometimes be difficult to fit the right themes into a character’s past if they’ve already been created. Lucky for you, there is such a huge variety of ways to explain how anger issues develop that an explanation can be found for any type of character.

Take a look at some of the most common explanations, and how that could impact the ways in which your character experiences uncontrollable anger:

  • Depression: Characters that struggle with depression already tend to have a bleak outlook on life. You could show them struggling with a lot of internal and chronic anger, or give them bouts of blackout rage to create a cycle of getting angry and feeling regret about their anger. If you really want to mess them up, give them all three.
  • Anxiety: Again, this one leans more strongly towards inward anger, since anxious characters may get unreasonably frustrated at themselves for being too anxious to do normal things.
  • Addiction: Alcohol and drug abuse can be a straight road to anger management issues. Not only do intoxicants remove inhibitions, like saying harsh things or acting violently, but the stress of withdrawal from those substances can have destructive consequences. 
  • Shame or low self-esteem: Some characters may use anger as a coping mechanism to make up for something they are self-conscious about. A smaller man may feel the need to act aggressively to make up for his stature, or other characters could use anger to hide a more sensitive side of themselves. Generally, these characters are ashamed of something and trying to hide it behind a mask of anger.
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: OCD is a complicated disorder (that is also often misunderstood, but that’s a topic for another day). OCD is characterized by compulsive behaviors, such as counting things, completing a specific routine, or repeating actions a certain number of times before the person can move on with their day. Characters with OCD can get frustrated at their inability to resist these compulsions, or they could get angry at other people for not being understanding of their quirks. 
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Some of the most prevalent symptoms of individuals with ADHD are restlessness and impulsivity. People with ADHD tend to feel emotions very strongly, so they can quickly get frustrated or angry. A character with ADHD could experience bouts of anger that are explosive but likely wouldn’t last very long.
  • Bipolar Disorder: Bipolar Disorder is characterized by a mood that fluctuates dramatically between mania and depression, or “highs and lows.” The interesting thing about this, however, is that anger can be a result of either emotional state. While a person is “high,” that usually means they are feeling happy, but it can also result in impulsivity and bouts of outward anger. When a person is “low,” they can be depressed and may exhibit more signs of inward anger.
  • Borderline Personality Disorder: BPD is a disorder that makes people feel emotions intensely, and they have a much harder time coming back from an emotional trigger. It can also lead to mood swings, impulsive behaviors, and fluctuating opinions. Characters with BPD are perfect for fits of blackout rage.
  • Grief: A character that has recently experienced a huge loss, like the death of a spouse or child, may lose their grip on their emotions. Intense grief is a difficult thing to cope with, and a character may express anger as a way of avoiding confronting their grief. Their anger, therefore, represents their denial and their inability to move on from the loss. 
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: PTSD is probably the most common justification for anger issues that I’ve seen in media. Characters that were abused, sexually assaulted, or otherwise traumatized could develop anger issues as a means of protecting themselves. Someone who was hurt in the past may feel safer if they act aggressively, while others may react more instinctively, like traumatized veterans.

These ideas are by no means a complete list of all the ways you could justify your character’s struggle with anger, but hopefully, they can give you the idea. If one of those options works for you, then that’s great! If not, then there are a myriad of other conditions and situations that could lead to the development of anger issues. Just do your research, and you’ll find something that will work perfectly with your character and the story they exist within.

The Consequences of Your Character’s Anger

If you’re going to make a character angry, you’re going to need to really show your audience what they go through. This means that you should not only show the destruction that they cause to their surroundings, but you should also really explore the consequences it has on the character’s health, emotions, and relationships. These details are what give a story life.

Physical

It’s important to remember that human beings are complicated things. An intense emotion like anger can have consequences for a person’s physical well being. Characters with anger issues are going to see some physical effects, both in the moment and long-term.

The short term effects of anger are a result of the body releasing adrenaline as if to prepare them for a fight. These effects can be:

  • Tingling skin
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Tightening of the chest
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Sweating

The long term effects of anger resemble the consequences of stress, whether from chronic anger or repeated outbursts over a long period of time. These effects can be:

  • Regular headaches
  • Pressure in the head or sinus cavities
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Muscle tenseness or soreness

It is always better to “show, don’t tell” when it comes to portraying physical sensations. For a complete breakdown of how to use showing in your story, check out Show, Don’t Tell: What it is and How to Write it.

Emotional

In addition to the physical effects, struggling with anger can result in emotional consequences. Most people who experience uncontrollable anger feel guilty or ashamed of it, which can make them depressed. This creates a cycle where their anger feeds into the conditions that were already responsible for the anger problems to begin with, making it extremely difficult for characters to break out and get help.

Some of the emotional effects of struggling with anger issues are:

  • Regret
  • Shame
  • Sadness
  • Paranoia
  • Irritation
  • Anxiety
  • Fear

Interpersonal

As if that wasn’t enough, people who struggle with anger issues also often have a difficult time maintaining relationships with other people. Anger can push loved ones away, and prevent a character from making new friends. This social isolation can make existing problems, like grief and addiction, even more pronounced.

Some of the interpersonal effects of anger issues are:

  • Frequent arguing or fighting
  • Inability to make friends
  • Driving loved ones away
  • Hurting people they care about
  • Controlling behavior
  • Manipulative behavior

Giving Your Characters Coping Mechanisms for Their Anger

Depending on your character’s personality and situation, they may try to find ways of coping with their uncontrollable anger, with varying degrees of success. These coping mechanisms can also be either positive or negative, and somewhere in between.

Some examples of positive coping mechanisms are:

  • Being open and honest about their struggles with friends
  • Working out
  • Volunteering
  • Playing a sport
  • Meditating
  • Taking naps
  • Keeping a journal

Some examples of negative coping mechanisms are:

  • Alcoholism 
  • Aggression
  • Drugs
  • Punching walls or breaking things
  • Driving recklessly
  • Yelling
  • Self-harm

Remember that these coping mechanisms are often a substitute for real professional help, which your character could have a variety of reasons for avoiding. Maybe they don’t have the time or money for traditional therapy, or they could be skeptical of its effectiveness. They could be in denial about having a problem at all. Whatever their reasons, these characters either choose not to get help, help is unavailable to them, or the help they have received has been ineffective.

However, if you do want them to pursue real help, there are several options for that as well.

Types of Treatment for Anger Issues

If you want your characters to have a dramatic arc where they overcome their anger issues and become a better, happier person, then you’re going to need to be realistic about it. Finding the love of their life is not going to make their problems disappear. Seeing the error of their ways is not going to make anything easier for them. You can’t just let the anger disappear when it’s convenient or makes a happy ending. Recovering from any mental illness is going to take time, and usually not without a substantial amount of therapy, support, and treatment.

Since anger is a symptom of a larger problem, any treatments they receive should begin at the source. If the character has depression, for example, getting on medication and seeking therapy for their depression could be a place to start. Characters with addictions will need to go through a rehabilitation program first. A character who has lost a loved one is going to need to accept their loss before they can let go of their anger. Only after the underlying problems have been addressed can the individual symptoms be treated.

But what if your character lives in a world where traditional therapy isn’t really an option? If you’re writing a traditional fantasy story or a story set in the distant past, there are still ways you can come to a reasonable resolution. Maybe your character has a good support network of friends who understand their struggle. Maybe they have a mentor or friend that can give them wise counsel on navigating their stormy emotions. Try to disguise recognizable therapy elements in ways that fit the setting of the story, to make your readers feel good about the improvements the character is making. Hell, you could even use magic, as long as you can justify it. The solutions you present should be reasonable for the kind of improvements you want the character to make.

Some Parting Thoughts on Portraying Characters with Anger Issues

The most important thing I want you to remember from this is that anger does not exist by itself. Anger issues are dependent on the character’s other personality traits, individual struggles, and unique past. If you take the anger away from your character and they have no personality left, you seriously need to reconsider everything about them.

Finally, I’m going to end with a little piece of advice. Unless the character’s struggle with anger is going to be a major conflict in the storyline, there’s really no need to beat your readers over the head with it. You don’t need to constantly remind your readers of the character’s anger; be subtle, and they’ll pick up on the subtext. Just because you know everything about your character doesn’t mean you should spell it all out. From a reader’s perspective, it’s much more fun to make inferences based on foreshadowing and hints that you provide.

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