Profiting from Loss: Use Grief Effectively in Your Story

 Last time I talked about killing off your characters, and how that can add momentum to your story, and help shape your plot. But what about handling the emotional spectrum that grief brings out in people as your story goes on?

Grief is a lot like love: everyone will experience it, and no one’s experience of it – or reaction – is going to be the same. 

Here’s a basic example: which popular children’s or YA story starts without a parent dead or dying? Both parents?

I can think of a few, but they’re the exceptions, and in exchange for not being dead, those parents were distant, absent or neglectful guardians. It’s hard for a child to go on an adventure with a caring, watchful parent around (unless you’re Japanese), so that part of parents being absent in a story makes sense.

But there’s another underlying reason for stories to start with loss, even if it goes unstated: the fallout from grief highlights the inner struggles every person will face.

  • Identity: Who does your character rely on to tell them, directly or through experience, who they are? Have you given them opportunities to realize they are more, or different, than what people have said of them? Do they choose a fundamental truth to hold onto that tethers them to their identity?
  • Self-worth: Without unconditional love from a parent or parent-figure, it can be easy for children (and adults) to struggle with feeling less than valuable. How does your character handle those questions? Have they even realized it’s an issue they need to address? Do they have friends who contribute to their positive self-image? Or are they surrounded by detractors?
  • Independence/Self-confidence: With the sheltering figure often absent in a story, does your character gain self-confidence from accomplishing things by themselves? Or is that a result of having to do things by themselves that they only realize later? Is there an older/wiser mentor around to inspire them? A heroic ideal in their world that they aspire to be like?
  • Trust & Love: Many people shut themselves off after experiencing loss early, but on the other end of the scale, children are resilient. What kind of reaction does your character have to the losses they’ve faced? Are they inherently optimists, believing their next experiences will be better? Or do they constantly struggle with trusting the new people who enter their world? What about loving those people? Romantic interests?

Another question to ask is what kind of ‘found family’ your character is going to become a part of. The term is popular right now, but the concept isn’t new:

  • There’s the traditional joining a circus (or whatever traveling group fits your story)
  • Joining the military/ secret spy agency/ rebellion forces
  • Being adopted or placed with relatives (a loving family or not)
  • Sent to boarding school (or an orphanage)

These are just a few options, but very few stories leave the protagonist going it alone for long. We’re social animals, needing relationships to keep us going. Just keep in mind that the same is true for your characters, and your story will be the richer for it!

Katie, signing off

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