Mean Today

As anyone knows, we are not always in command of our moods. “He woke up on the wrong side of the bed” is the most common expression related to the phenomenon. These inexplicable shifts—I am a stranger to myself—pose a mystery. What are the contributing factors? Are biorhythms to blame? A forgotten dream during the night? For the more superstitious, has someone stuck a pin in my poppet?

For a fiction writer, this inscrutable change is difficult to capture. That’s because you are making stuff up anyway, and laying the blame for someone acting out of character on a “bad mood” can seem like manipulation of the reader. Oh, I see, the will of the wisp, eh? Worse is trying to provide an explanation for the behavior. No matter how labored, it still seems like an excuse. Oh, that’s why I’m supposed to swallow it?

A better method is setting up a set of circumstances that the mood is violating. In a basic model, the character herself notices a sudden flare-up in temper, for example, and scolds herself. There was no reason to get so upset over something so trifling. In other words, the mood becomes real because the character is shown fighting herself, trying to gain control. Yet when the morning really goes off the rails, e.g., when she finally tells her boss to stop using his small brain, you have provided a plausible setup. She’s been spending the last X number of pages trying to curb her dangerous mood.

Another model that works is intoxication with a mood. A character who is habitually gloomy is walking to work and realizes, hey, the sun is shining. She is caught up in the freshness of her perception. She gives money to the filthy beggar on the corner of her office building. She gaily greets her secretary, who instantly wonders what he’s done wrong. Only gradually, because life will grind away at any mood, does she revert to snappishness.

You can exploit a character who exerts rigid control over his life. Take a man who disclaims emotions because everything to him is rational. This is a sucker waiting to fall—more accurately, to spiral out of control. Moods are irrational, and anyone who pretends otherwise is merely clamping a lid on a boiling pot. At some point, pow! The lid blows into the fan hood and let’s see what bubbles out. Entire novels have charted the course of a character set free from the strictures of his old life, so you can manage the mood of one morning.

Exercise: When you have a plot event that seems implausible, see if you can arrange the mood of the main character involved. That means backtracking from the event in order to set it up. Look at the character’s main qualities, then subvert one of them—and make her conscious of how strange it is.

“Nothing helps a bad mood like spreading it around.”
—Bill Watterson

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.