We all see people who seem to be willfully ignoring some truth – usually one that is glaringly obvious. And what we say about these people is that they are in denial.
According to Dictionary.com, denial means:
1. an assertion that something said, believed, alleged, etc., is
Despite his denials, we knew he had taken the purse. The politician issued a denial of his opponent’s charges.
2. refusal to believe a doctrine, theory, or the like.
3. disbelief in the existence or reality of a thing.
4. the refusal to satisfy a claim, request, desire, etc., or the refusal of a person making it.
5. refusal to recognize or acknowledge; a disowning or
the traitor’s denial of his country; Peter’s denial of Christ.
6. Law. refusal to acknowledge the validity of a claim, suit, or the like; a plea that denies allegations of fact in an adversary’s
7. sacrifice of one’s own wants or needs; self-denial.
Number 3 is the one that sticks out to me right now. Why? One of the cats that I grew up with is very ill, and there is a lot of denial about her condition around the house. (We HAVE taken her to the vet twice – let no one claim we are not trying to take care of her.) My mom keeps trying to think of reasons that she is sick (she always eats less in the summer, Martin was extra skinny a few weeks ago so maybe it’s a bug, etc.). The fact of the matter is that Lily is very sick and we can’t do anything about it.
So this got me thinking. How do we, as writers, covey that a character is in denial? Our key commandment is to make something believable. Let’s take coincidences as an example. In real life, we have coincidences, happenstances, and all manner of unexpected occurrences that, sometimes, make a big difference in our lives. But in a work of fiction? We’d better have a darn good reason for that coincidence, and something to back it up. Why? Because it feels like cheating when it is in a book.
The same can be said for characters in denial. It looks and feels like the author is cheating – having a character ignore something blatantly obvious. This can be as simple as denying that they are in love, refusing to see that their confidante is betraying them, a partner having an affair, or a hundred other possibilities. And let me put this out there: no one likes a stupid* character.
How, then, do we write denial without making our character stupid? Well, we better have a good explanation for their denial. And I don’t mean you have to explicitly state it, but work it in with things that have happened, their back story, etc. For example, if I was going to write about my mom and Lily, I would probably start with the story of Lily’s adoption into our family, when my mom found her half-dead in one of the flower-pots on the porch. I would talk about how my mom nursed this kitten back to health, how we thought she was a boy at first, how she gets scared at a sneeze. I would talk about my mom too, and how she wants everything to work out perfectly, how even when I was a kid we couldn’t go to the pet store without her tearing up seeing the puppies and kittens in cages. With all that, you could see how she would want to deny the severity of Lily’s condition.
Of course, writing about a really situation is easier (in some cases) than a fictional one. But the steps are the same. Know what makes your character tick, the relationship between characters. Know why your character would ignore the obvious and there you have denial, and all the reasons why.
*Stupid is different than: naive, making poor choices, trying to do what’s best but being really terrible at it, etc.