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Writing Emotional Repression

We’ve all met the dark and mysterious, brooding and broken characters that generally act awfully but everybody wants to help them anyway. That, I think, is the general way characters with emotional repression are portrayed. Since I am currently writing emotionally repressed characters, I’d like to add some tips that may help you write these characters in a more detailed or realistic way.

1. Backstory

An emotionally repressed character’s backstory is usually a good place to make havoc in order to mess up your characters current behaviours or interactions. They’re common because of how incredibly effective they are at showing ‘bad’ or ‘annoying’ characters in a sympathetic light! But I also want to encourage experimentation that might actually be more relatable for your average reader. A backstory doesn’t need to be dramatic, it could be that the character doesn’t even remember why they became emotionally repressed, or that they became so emotionally repressed that they avoided the consequences of being emotionally open entirely (or until the story commences).

2. Tells

Tells are pretty much my favourite thing to add into a story. A person, and in realism’s case a character, with emotional repression may have a tell and it be completely unrelated to expected emotional reactions. A character may seem to constantly fidget, but in honest moments be very still, showing that the fidgeting is actually a product of nervousness or bottling up. Perhaps your character may get fits of giggles when they’re upset or don’t know what to do, even if this means offending someone needing help that they do truly care for. Tells are weird, complex and can be clumsily written but I personally love when they are included.

3. Personality

Emotionally repressed characters are not necessarily emotionless. They may feel intense emotions and have no idea why, or seem to strongly experience the ‘wrong’ emotion for the situation. This will put across a misleading face to other characters. I think this may be particularly powerful in first person, where you can really capture the ‘that came out wrong’ realisation a moment after your character has spoken, when it’s already too late. First person also emphasises the sharp shock of other characters completely misjudging your main character with sweeping statements like ‘you’re always so happy’ or ‘it can’t have been that bad’ when your character is trying to express themselves, when in reality they’re completely downplaying their experiences and emotions.

4. Breaking points

Emotionally repressed characters will have breaks. I like to write them as interactions with that one person they’ve learnt to trust but this could be with pets or games, sports or toys. A child may quietly play but be muttering near obscene/disturbing things they’d never let another character hear. An adult might never cry or share personal details of their life (without softening their problems into nothing) with anyone except their pet, best friend or partner. And it might not all be completely harmless emotional expression either. An emotionally repressed character may only raise their voice towards their best friend or partner when they cross a line because they would find it impossible to confront any other character. This is really the fine line where these characters can come across as horrible people that walk all over kind people, so avoid personal jibes at that kind character at all costs and just show the genuine upset without meanness. That said, I find the trope of every ‘good’ character being understanding a little tension-damaging. Emotional repression and misunderstandings go hand in hand for my characters, with meanness sometimes being assumed even by often understanding characters.

I hope this has given some extra ideas to anyone planning to write an emotionally repressed character or just struggling to find character flaws for a WIP. Happy writing and share any additional ideas below!

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