tall dark and dead

Help, I’m Addicted to Angst

Today I want to talk to you about the absolute biggest pitfall new writers fall into, specifically young writers, and I want to start by making a confession.

My first OC’s name was Shawn. You may remember seeing his profile at some point when I posted it on the blog as a workshop exercise - that was the new and improved, completely revamped from the ground up edition. Let me tell you about the first version of Shawn. He was tall, dark, and brooding (check) with a dead best friend (check) and control over shadow magic (check) who fell in love with a vampire chick (check) who kept trying unsuccessfully to kill herself because she hated what she’d become (check) and she turned him into a vampire too (check). They spent most of their time brooding about death and darkness (check), wearing all black clothing (check), and generally being depressed and depressing human beings (check). Somehow they managed to have two kids (a girl and a boy - check) before Shawn’s vampire bride left his life forever (check) and then he tragically died of a broken heart (check), leaving his children orphans (double check). I don’t remember most of the details, but thirteen-year-old me was really proud of this story. Twenty-five-year-old me cringes and counts that as a sign of personal growth. Any of those checkmarks would have been fine on its own. In fact, I probably could’ve gotten away with two or three of them. But all of them? Together? Sometimes I wonder if I secretly hated this character!

What were you thinking when you read that paragraph? Were you thinking that this story sounds fun and exciting and you’d like to read it, or were you thinking something more along the lines of “yawn, of course she was a vampire, of course he died of a broken heart, doesn’t everybody?” I tend to fall into the second camp, and when I read profiles with backstories like the original Shawn’s, it usually makes me sigh heavily and get out my waders so that I don’t get any angst on my shoes while I wade through the mess to critique it.

When you keep piling more and more bad stuff onto your characters, you’re generating character angst, where the character (not the reader) has to react by constantly being anxious, depressed, or stressed out. A little bit of character angst can be good for your plot, because it can result in your character thinking seriously about themselves and growing as a character. Too much character angst, and your character becomes a stagnant pile of misery and unhappy thoughts. They are never going to Neverland with pixie dust because nothing good has ever happened to them in their entire life.

Learn from thirteen-year-old Kyo’s mistakes: inject a little levity! Sure, some people have rotten lives and things are terrible for them from the get-go, but they still have to find small things to take pleasure in, jokes that make them laugh, people they can talk to, or other things that brighten up the doom and gloom, even temporarily, because if they didn’t have those things they would have no reason not to just give up and stay in bed for the rest of their lives. Give your characters a reason, no matter how trivial it seems - they need motivation to keep on going no matter how dark things get!

It’s good for your readers, too. When reading a story where everything is bad all the time, nothing is good, and the main character is constantly brooding about how bad their life is, readers experience a type of fatigue. They just get tired of it. If this happens too early in the story, or if your plot or characters are not sufficiently interesting enough to keep a reader invested in your story despite their fatigue, they may put the book down and never pick it up again. You don’t want that, do you? Nobody wants that. You can do your readers a favor too by making sure that character angst only happens in brief sections and that your character is able to resolve at least some of it: if they’re failing and they’re worried about a test, for example, have them resolve to study more or seek help from a friend; if someone died and your character is grieving, you can have another character comfort them. The resolution doesn’t always have to come from within. Give your character a support network and let them reach out for help if they need it!

Remember, more angst does not equal a better or deeper story. Cramming more tragedy into your character’s backstory doesn’t make them a better character, either. Think of it like a recipe: if everything in your story is salty tears and bitter sarcasm, it’s probably not going to taste very good, is it? But just like in a cookie recipe, adding a little salt and a little bit of bitterness can bring out the best in other flavors.