Limyaael's Rants

Handling Angst

Written on 2003-07-03; Read the original post on LiveJournal

...an entry that has nothing to do with OoTP! *grin*

1. Let the character react to the angst in a way that involves that character's unique history. Most of us probably would burst into tears if we saw our entire family murdered in front of us, but how long our shock lasted, how violent the grief was, and what we did next would depend entirely on us. It also depends on things like age, how the family died, how close the survivor is to the individuals who died, and so on. One thing that troubles me about books (like a lot of fantasies) that start with a Dramatic Incident to Give the Character Angst (TM) is how many of the characters react exactly the same way. Vilalge girl who sees her village slaughtered by Orcs, a city boy who comes back to find his family murdered by a robber, a royal heir growing up as a peasant who gets his or her family murdered by Dark agents- it doesn't matter. They scream and cry and then think about how they're going to miss their family for the rest of their lives. All the time. Grief in real life is usually a little more complex than that. Develop the angst in accordance with your own character's situation and personality.

2. Go for angst that isn't related to murder or rape or abuse, perhaps, just to see what will happen. I know that I've angsted about plenty of things that involved none of those. A bitter argument can drive people apart and cause quite enough pain without one angry character offering violence to the other, of any kind. Overuse of rape and death just numbs your audience; look at the way most people react to the evening news. Viciousness of other kinds may have the impact of freshness.

3. Don't make your character react to the traumatic event in clichéd ways- for example, don't let your character's rape turn her into a lesbian, or the scene of family-slaughter make her have screaming nightmares every night. A lot of people know about these clichés and yet fall into them anyway. It doesn't always help to try to follow real-world psychology, either, since that is based on case studies and none of those may match your individual character. See point 1.

4. Consider markings of the trauma that are actually debilitating. Even abuse victims seem to get bruises that fade in a few days, or attractive scars (gag). What about a mark- especially pertinent if the character is a prisoner, a slave, or otherwise in a situation where no one has a reason to treat her well- that covers half her face, or wounds that interfere with her ability to move when healed, or a broken bone that's set badly so she can never really use her arm again? It's amazing how seldom these show up- and, if they do, they get excused with a platitude from the character's true love about "You're beautiful to me anyway." Too often, the suffering seems temporary, and that cheapens it. Do research on what burns or torture might do to someone, both physically and mentally. And read books of your genre that deal with it, both for what's been done (and thus what you want to avoid) and for good examples of it. One of the best examples in fantasy is Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion, featuring a protagonist, Cazaril, who's been a galley slave. He has a lot of trouble moving because of his lesions, the scars make everyone think he's a criminal, and he's prone to weeping at the sight of a comfortable room when he first gets back to civilzation.

5. Accept the fact that healing takes some time. If your whole story is about healing from the angst, of course, that's one thing. But the trauma often gets thrown off in the course of an afternoon, or even a few hours- especially in novels/stories/fanfic where the romance is central to the plot. Then the character's Twoo Wuv makes it All Better. Blech. Take some time and show us how your character recovers, not just a two-bit cardboard cutout.

6. Accept the fact that not everyone will react with sympathy to the character's angst. Does she complain about it all the time? Probably some people are going to start rolling their eyes, or at least taking her less seriously after they find out. Does she cry, weep, scream hysterically? People will get pretty tired of that, too. Does she insist on trying to do things she can't do, like moving fast when she's just healed, and then slow everybody up? That could put others' lives in danger. Always remember that, while your character may be the center of the story, she should not be the center of your story's universe. Consider what bad things might have happened to the other characters, not only to give them their own angst, but also to show up how they might react to your main character, and why.

It saddens me when trauma is played for cheap romance or sympathy.

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