Jennifer Castle on Writing a Grieving Character

Unsure how to create a character who grieves convincingly without writing a totally depressing tear-jerker? Here’s some advice from someone who definitely knows what she’s doing. Jennifer Castle, author of The Beginning of After, shares her secrets.

There were moments while I was writing The Beginning of After, my novel about a teen girl who must find a way to move forward after losing her whole family in a car accident, when I would stop typing, smack myself on the forehead, and say, “Wait a minute, missy. Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Because I have zero personal experience with this level of tragedy. I never lost anyone close to me as a teen. But a lot of readers have, and if Laurel’s journey didn’t ring true for them, the book would not work. Pressure, much?

Eventually I realized, you don’t have to have a history with grief in order to write about it. In my case, the foreignness allowed me to be objective and make Laurel’s story totally her own — there was none of my mismatched author baggage stowed away for the ride.

Death is a recurring theme in storytelling, as it should be…it’s, uh, a recurring theme in life. When there’s death, there’s grief, and as writers there’s no need for us to shy away from it. Grief can play a role in a character’s journey or backstory; it can color their motivations and behavior. It can even move the story forward or bring two characters together. It’s an incredibly rich theme, once you get inside it.

Here’s what else I learned:

Do your research. There are many fine books available on how to cope with grief. No need to go crazy — find maybe two that fit your particular needs. I also read several memoirs by teens who had experienced a catastrophic loss, and those were incredibly helpful. Read other fiction that deals with grief and see how different authors do it in different ways. If you can, pick the brain of an expert (a school counselor, a therapist, a social worker) or even just talk to someone you know well about their experiences with loss. I have a friend who is not only a grief therapist but also lost her mother at a young age, and I took her out for the longest and most enlightening Mimosa-flooded brunch I’ve ever had. I love research, because it makes me feel like I’m working on my book without actually, you know, having to write.

Know your character. Really, really, well. The one thing that makes grief manageable as a topic for authors is that it is extremely personal, and everyone handles it in their own way. Don’t worry about whether a character is reacting “typically;” all that matters is that she’s reacting typically for her. (In fact, it’s the atypical reactions that are usually more interesting to read about.) One thing I’ve always advised young writers to do is take an acting class; it might give you great tools to help you get into your character’s skin and understand them even better.

It doesn’t have to be all gloom and doom. Yeah, death sucks, and grieving is a total downer. But like all things, they’re also surrounded by humor, brightness, hope, and joy. Find ways to take your readers away from the dark, even if just for a moment. Make a character crack a joke, have something good suddenly come of the situation, take a moment to notice the sun shining on the grass. That’s easier for people to handle…and more importantly, that’s real.

Writing Laurel and her story was not easy, and to be honest I’m loving the fact that my next book contains no death. But I’m glad I went on this tough journey with her, and I hope readers feel the same way. Every time I hear from someone who tells me they love The Beginning of After, that they’ve struggled with grief too and I got it just right, it means more to me than I can ever express.

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