One of my novels features a shy, brilliant graduate student. In the original version (which has been changed several times), a woman he has a crush on makes it clear in a cell phone conversation with him that his feelings aren’t reciprocated. He is devastated, and lies curled up on his bed, unable to face the world for several hours. A reasonable reaction, I thought.
A developmental editor who was advising me thought I had it all wrong. The character, in his opinion, should have smashed his phone to smithereens, then thrown everything off his desk, in a fit of rage. I argued that such a reaction wouldn’t fit the character (in fact it would fit very few characters, in my opinion). A highly achieved academic would hardly be expected to destroy his own cell phone and throw the papers on his desk into disarray, the re-organization of which would likely take several hours. We argued back and forth, each insisting on our respective positions. In the end, I won as it was my novel and I therefore had the final say.
This brings to mind emotional intelligence, a description popularized in 2005 by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ. Emotional intelligence refers to one’s ability to control and express emotions. One of the components of emotional intelligence is self-regulation. I would argue that intentionally destroying one’s own cell phone and trashing the surroundings is a manifestation of very poor self-regulation. Not a desirable trait.
A common expression used by members of the creative writing community is “show, don’t tell.” In other words, instead of simply saying “Steve is sad,” describe Steve’s reaction. Write about a tear trickling down Steve’s face, a lack of energy, a somber expression, loss of appetite, maybe even an achy breaky heart (credit to Billy Ray Cyrus, Miley’s dad). That’s all good. Realistic, and more descriptive and interesting than simply stating “sad.” But trashing the place? Bad idea.
I don’t remember ever wanting to destroy property, especially my own, because things didn’t go my way. Not even as a little kid. I’d be thinking “I like that thing, and don’t want to be without it,” or “I worked hard on that and I certainly don’t want to do all that research, writing, or organization again,” and “I sure don’t want to have to clean up a mess.” Although I’m not aware of anyone I know ever doing this, I realize there are some people who actually do throw things around (usually at someone) when they’re really pissed off. But let’s face it, people who do that sort of thing are generally a bit emotionally unhinged to begin with. So unless a character has shown a tendency towards irrational behavior, or the author wants to show such a proclivity, he or she shouldn’t suddenly start destroying their (yes – it is now considered grammatically proper to use “their” instead of “his” “her” or “his or her”) own property.
So why did this editor think I should have my intelligent, logical, law-abiding character throw his stuff around? I may be wrong, but I have concluded this is a new fad. I think it started in television because after the discussion with my editor, I started noticing many instances of TV characters getting upset, then clearing everything off their desk or other surfaces with one angry swoop of their arm, breaking things and making a mess. If this emotional outburst happens to take place in a kitchen, food is involved. I realized that I’d noticed this before and had always found it disturbing and unrealistic. But my discussion made me aware of this new writing low, which now appears to be common in movies, too. To see this in visual media is especially perplexing, where if the actor is at all decent, they should be able to convey a feeling of disappointment or anger by using their acting skills in a realistic way. They shouldn’t need to resort to a violent, over-the-top reaction.
I can often tell if someone is angry or upset by their behavior, without having to witness them smash their cell phone or throw dishes on the floor. All you TV and Movie scriptwriters out there, please pay attention. You’re better than that. Don’t have your character smash things. Write something realistic.
For instance, in Rain Man, the 1988 movie about a young man (played by Tom Cruise) who finds out he will not be getting the inheritance he expected after his father’s death because the money is being left in a trust for his autistic brother (played by Dustin Hoffman), there are several scenes where the Cruise character gets angry, but he doesn’t break things. The most he does is kick some dirt by a phone booth. There are plenty of other good movies that rely on acting, not silly stunts, to get the point across. Try watching some of them, and decide for yourself whether films (and books) need to rely on violence towards objects to convey feelings of anger. Is it really necessary to portray low emotional intelligence as the norm?