Writing Grief

I’m convinced no two grief experiences are the same. And because there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there is no right or wrong way to write about grief. As long as it’s honest and nuanced. And nuanced doesn’t mean melodramatic.

Sometimes, plot-driven stories present grief somewhat one-sidedly: a character loses someone, they hurt and miss them, then something reminds them of that person, they miss them again, then they avenge them/reconcile the loss, and move on. 

But I think in reality, missing the deceased person is only a small part of the grieving journey. If you lose someone important to you, especially if they’re gone before their time, it can alter how you relate to others, yourself, and the world.

Here are a few ways in which grief can affect your characters.

It redefines their relationships with others

Maybe the way somebody else is grieving is annoying your character(against their best judgement), maybe they’re resentful of those who haven’t experienced that kind of loss. Maybe they reevaluate who they want in their life and in what capacity. Maybe the deceased was the glue of their social group, and they have to relearn to interact with the others. And maybe they never do and now it’s compounded grief for the lost friendships/familial bonds. And sometimes things can get really ugly, where you least expect it.

It redefines the characters identity

Being a daughter, sister, wife, mother, friend, for example, can be a big part of your character’s identity and when they lose a key relationship, they can begin to question everything about themselves. They may realise they had relied on the deceased person for their support, advice or opinions and may feel lost. They’ll have to find substitutes for whatever need that person fulfilled or learn to do without.

It redefines the character’s view of the deceased

Sometimes, when you lose someone you were close with, it lets you see who they were more objectively. For better or worse. You may realise there were times they wronged you or you wronged them, and you can have bouts of anger or guilt. Sometimes at the same time. And it’s okay for your character to feel all those things, they’re not mutually exclusive, and they don’t mean they didn’t love whoever they lost or vice versa. Everyone’s just misguided in their own ways, and your character might start seeing it for what it is.

It redefines the character’s world view

Sure, it can make them reevaluate what’s important in life. Or not. But also, losing someone, especially before their time, can force your character to become keenly aware, not only of their own (potentially sudden) mortality, but also of the mortality of everyone they ever loved (especially if they’re younger and this is their first big loss).

And then, depending on the circumstances of the loss, they can experience anticipated grief, delayed grief, compounded grief (you’re going to have to research those yourself). And did I mention trauma? Often loss can be or can be accompanied by a traumatic experience, that will leave your jumping up in cold sweat every time the phone rings, or the door creaks, for example, if that’s how they found out about the death.

Furthermore, I’d suggest staying away from well-meaning but unhelpful platitudes like “time heals”. Maybe it does, but that healing isn’t uniform. Your character can be doing pretty well after the initial shock fades, and then two, four, ten years down the track, when they realise they haven’t seen that person in all that time, it can hit them with the force of a thousand trucks.

Hope that was helpful and gives you something to think about.

Anything else worth mentioning? Let me know about a time you had to write grief.

Disney’s Moana as an example of a flat arc protagonist

While learning the writing craft I found that examples of flat-arc characters, especially protagonists, are pretty hard to come by. There tends to be a belief that a protagonist must undergo a big transformation as the story progresses. I like to question this premise.

Most writing advice suggests that a protagonist must start off either with a fatal flaw or believing in a big lie. A character on a positive arc, will overcome the flaw/unravel the lie and become a better version of themselves. A character on a negative arc will fall deeper into the flaw or the lie, which will lead to their demise or corruption. A character with a flat arc will end up believing the same truth they started off with. 

NB: A flat character arc is not to be confused with a cardboard character. A character on a flat arc can be nuanced and well-developed. They can have agency and learn new skills along the way. They just don’t undergo a drastic change, especially in terms of who they are and what they believe.

You may ask, is there even a story if the character doesn’t change? Good question! Yes, the story is in the conflict between the character and whatever tries to push them off their path, make them give up their truth or corrupt them. This can include their own doubt.

I believe Disney’s Moana is an example of a character with a flat arc. At the start of the film,  Moana is already brave, responsible, empathetic and has leadership qualities. She already believes the sea is her friend. But her father and her community try to change her. They are the ones with the fatal flaw/lie—the fear of the sea. 

Moana tries to conform, but when the villagers come to her saying there is no fish, she suggests going further out to sea (returning to her truth). The idea is shut down by her father. Moana still believes she is right and tries to cross the reef by herself, but is stopped by the big waves. Thus, her father and her environment are examples of antagonistic forces that create the conflict.

When Moana’s grandma (her ally) gives Moana new information (that her people used to be seafarers) and tools (a better boat and the heart of Te Fiti), Moana braves the reef again. Along the way she faces many obstacles that lead her to doubt and question her truth, path and identity, but she perseveres. 

Once she succeeds in her quest, she returns to her island, essentially proving she had been right all along and teaching her community the seafaring ways. The Motonui community is transformed as a result of Moana’s journey, not Moana herself. (Compare this with Anna from Frozen, whose understanding of love changes as a result of her journey, i.e. a positive arc). That’s why I believe Moana’s is a flat arc, and it works great for the story.

I hope you found this helpful and it will encourage you to experiment with different types of characters and arcs.

Can you come up with other examples of characters with flat arcs?

TCKs – the aliens amongst us

“Where are you from?”

It’s a straightforward question, isn’t it? Not if you’re a Third Culture Kid (TCK, also known as a global nomad).

The term was coined in the 1950s by an American sociologist Dr Ruth Hill Useem, to describe people who have spent a significant part of their childhood years in two or more different countries. Useem found that, unlike people who move to a foreign country as adults, children incorporate elements of each culture they live in, but don’t fully integrate into any single one.  They combine pieces of their home and host cultures to form a “third culture.”

These experiences continue to affect people throughout their lives. Studies over the past decades have identified a number of common characteristics shared by TCKs, irrespective of which countries they lived in. These include good intercultural skills and interpersonal sensitivity, open-mindedness, adaptability, fluency in multiple languages, etc. Which is handy, right? However, growing up in different worlds also poses challenges: e.g. a sense of loss and grief (especially as many children don’t choose to move, it’s decided for them), confused identity, feelings of not belonging anywhere, rootlessness and cultural homelessness.

Why am I telling you this? Because I’m a TCK. I was born and spent the first eight years in Russia, the next nine years in Namibia, and then I came to New Zealand, on my own, aged 17, and ended up staying (for more than 15 years so far). I have elements of all these cultures ingrained in me. 

The whole rootlessness/confused identity issue did really bother me as a teen and in my early 20s. I felt that I was missing crucial chunks of experience to really belong anywhere and that I’d be a foreigner everywhere I go. The question “Where are you from” used to make me quite uncomfortable, especially if I didn’t want to share my entire life story.

I didn’t learn the term TCK until I was studying towards my second qualification in my mid-twenties, but I had been preoccupied with this topic long before that. 

In the first space opera I wrote when I was 16, kids get plucked from different planets to be sent to an intergalactic space school (to become crime fighting space agents, obviously), and the criteria for Earth kids was that they had to have lived in a foreign country, which was meant to make them adaptable enough to cope with living in space amongst the aliens. That book never saw the light of day, but I continued researching this topic for school essays and later for uni — that’s when I discovered the term Third Culture Kids.

There’s a piece of research that suggests making this discovery can be life-changing. It was for me. It helped me understand myself and my experiences, to realise there were many people who felt the same way as me, and to feel seen and validated. It’s similar to realising you have a neurodivergence for the first time, or figuring out your sexuality — your experience in the world suddenly makes a lot more sense.

Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, a book by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken is a great resource for anyone who wants to know more about this topic. As the cover says, this book is for “anyone who wants to understand the blessings and curses of growing up multiculturally.” You’ll find it useful if you’re a TCK yourself, or if you’re a parent of one, an educator, an employer, a researcher or a policy-maker.

I’ll also include a link to my old scribblings on this matter because they have handy references to more research and articles: https://midnightmediamusings.wordpress.com/tag/third-culture-kids/