Friday December 15
Subscribe to RSS Feed

Character Rants and Breakdowns—Let ’em Rip

December 21, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified December 21, 2011

Many of us have been trained from an early age to hold in our emotions. We’re not permitted to yell at parents, we must respect our siblings and playmates, and we don’t talk back to adults, not ever ever ever.

So, we spend much of our early years learning how to stifle emotion, honesty—because you can’t tell Mrs. Arlington that her dress is hideous—and our confusion.

There are individuals, of course, who ignore their parents’ training or whose parents don’t encourage polite manners. These children are the ones who pitch fits in the grocery store or who bully other kids on the playground. We’re not going to talk about these people, children whose emotions run wild and who grow into adults whose emotions run wild. Or into adults who use their volatile emotions or the mere threat of them to control those around them.

No, I want to talk about people—in our case, characters—who hold back their responses.

Women who’ve been trained to be polite rather than assertive.

Men who are told tears—and even the grief that prompts them—are unmanly.

Men and women who don’t speak their minds over matters either insignificant or noteworthy because to do so would be impolite or rude.

People who’ve been repressing their emotions or their thoughts, their preferences or dislikes or their opinions,  for years. For decades. For so long that they have no room for one more repressed thought or unvoiced emotion.

Characters so close to letting loose and breaking down that one nudge more will send them over the edge.

Ah . . . Can’t you see it? Feel the tension? Sense the volatility of the middle manager who’s been forced to stand behind others for his entire career, waiting to make his move, waiting for recognition. Never causing a fuss, never venting even when he was wronged. Can you see him, pushing down and pushing deep his emotions? And can you see him at his moment of triumph, when he should be finally making his mark, can you see what happens when his grand idea is shot down or he’s asked to once again support the plan of a lesser man? For the good of the company, of course. Maybe for the good of the industry or for the sake of the planet.

What happens when this man can’t take any more, won’t take any more? Does he go quietly into the night?

Not if he’s a character in a novel.

No, our middle manager explodes at his wife, pre-empting the news of her promotion, her pregnancy, her cancer diagnosis.

He hits the tipping point, but it’s the worst conceivable time for him to lose it. He gets a big scene—spewing his disappointment, spilling his rage—and the story tension soars. Then when his wife is sympathetic but also shares her news, and his needs must once again take the back seat to someone else’s, they go at each other and conflict jumps.

Such conflict—and the resulting tension between characters and within the reader—creates involving, absorbing, unforgettably powerful fiction.

Or is that involving, absorbing, powerfully unforgettable fiction?

When a character rages, when he falls apart and lets go and breaks down, then we’ve got a scene that engages readers. That rips at their own emotions. That touches and moves them. That breaks and shakes and shatters them.

When the reader has drawn close to that character, when he can empathize with him, the breakdown is even more disturbing or moving.

It can even be cathartic.

Catharsis is the purging of emotions, usually when those emotions have built to an explosion point. Catharsis is a cleansing, a washing clean and clear.

Characters who explode—in rage or grief or fear—give themselves a release as well as providing a release for the reader.

You’ve watched such scenes in movies, when the star gets a chance for a tour de force moment, when he explodes with passion and reveals the true character he’s been hiding for most of the story.

Such scenes can become unbearable to the point they’re difficult to watch. The power of the released emotion—the long-repressed emotion—pushes every button of the audience. And it pushes the character.

Pushes him to say what he’s never said, what he’d been afraid to say, what he probably, in polite society, would never reveal. But when he gets to throw out and throw up the seething repressed words and feelings and truths he’s been hiding, wow. The release changes him. Brings him peace or at least some relief.

Maybe brings him guilt. Maybe healing. Maybe more trouble if his release comes at the expense of his boss or a foe or even a child who doesn’t understand why Dad went wacko for a while.

You can include such moments in the lives of your characters, moments when the inner person comes to the surface and reveals himself without apology and without fear. Moments when the repressed is freed. Moments when characters let ‘er rip with no thought to consequence.

Consider giving your protagonist—maybe your antagonist—such a scene. Let your lead character cast off society’s rules and be honest with himself and those closest to him. Use a character’s catharsis to send the story in a new direction.

Necessities for a satisfying character rant . . .

Reader identification with the character—be sure the rant doesn’t occur too early in the story or before readers empathize with the character

A character who has something to rant about, a topic that will engage other characters and/or the reader

A character who hasn’t already been ranting or breaking down throughout the story—a passionate catharsis will be most striking if it comes from a character who’s been constantly repressing rather than venting

Consequences, negative and positive, to the character or those he loves as a result of the character’s blowup

The character and/or story moves into a new direction as a result of a character’s emotional release

The moment or scene of a rant is of a sufficient duration without going so far that you lose the reader’s attention or his ability to empathize

Word choices that convey the emotion the character is feeling and word choices that elicit the emotion you’re looking for from the reader


Strongly consider giving your main character his own tour de force scene, one that readers will remember because it not only touched their emotions, it pulled and twanged and stomped on them. Consider such a scene especially if your character hasn’t done much changing or emoting through the story.

Consider such a scene if the story doesn’t need another action scene that arises from outside forces but could use one that’s prompted by character needs.

Consider an emotional cleansing if it’s past time for your character to speak his mind.

Shake up your readers by shaking loose your characters. Make readers witnesses to the most personal moment of a character’s life. Let them see. experience, know a character at his most vulnerable.

Make a strong character human by allowing him to break down in a spectacular fashion, in a way that changes him. In a way that opens the eyes of those who thought they knew him.

Show your tough guy’s emotions, your intellectual’s heart, your timid mouse’s backbone and passion.

Let truth emerge through unrestrained words and unfiltered emotions. Let the character make himself foolish and not care, at least in the moment of his release. (Afterwards you can give him remorse and embarrassment and all sorts of painful fallout.) Push beyond your own limits to make yourself uncomfortable at the raw emotion you let spill out of your pen and your head and your heart.


Allow your characters to tell off the world and allow yourself to be impolite, to butt in where no one belongs, to tell secrets that shouldn’t be brought to light.

Give your characters a catharsis.

Write good fiction.

Write powerful rants.



Tags: , ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

6 Responses to “Character Rants and Breakdowns—Let ’em Rip”

  1. Chihuahua0 says:

    One of my character’s rants are one of the scenes I’m looking forward to writing. The character is quite repressed throughout, and he reveals quite a lot once he breaks down.

  2. Chihuahua0, you’re going to have fun writing that scene, I’m sure. Not only will he get to let everything out, you’ll be able to use words and phrasings you’ve not been able to use in other parts of the story. Thus he gets a release and so do you. And you’ll be able to send your plot off in a new direction.

    I hope the scene turns out to be spectacular.

  3. Shannon says:

    The character rants are also one of my favorite parts. I love writing them because it can bring a whole new level of tension to the story, depending on the genre and what they reveal. It’s the type of scene I remember in the story and will reread again and again.

  4. Janet says:

    Your information is so compelling! Thank you for sharing your expertise. I have gained so much from reading your blog.

    Aspiring to write a memoir,

  5. Janet says:

    Thank you for sharing this valuable information! I will be developing an additional author’s website. I am gathering information on how to best present my story, and your blog was very enlightening!