I have very strict definitions of angst and tragedy, enough so that I can usually know within a few chapters whether I’ll enjoy a “sad” book or not, but I thought it might be nice to articulate them.
(Just to make it clear, I love tragic fantasy, and think angst needs to be drop-kicked off a tall building).
1. External conflicts vs. internal conflicts.
Angst has the first, tragedy has the latter. (For the rest of this list, you can apply that rule). Or, in other words, an angsty plot development, especially an angsty romance, is one motivated mostly or solely by contrived, stupid, boring, overused, external conflicts, while the internal ones of a tragic plot are strong, moving, fresh twists on a tragic theme.
I’ll start with romance, since that will be the easiest example to let you see just what I’m talking about. The hero and heroine are together and in love. She’s walking up to his apartment when she sees him kiss a woman he regards as a sister. She immediately storms up, accuses him of cheating on her, rants and raves so strongly he can’t get a word in edgewise, and then runs away in tears…usually straight into the bad guy’s clutches. Or she says nothing about it, resents him for committing a “crime” he has no idea he’s committed, and lashes out at random moments. Yet usually if the hero asks her what’s going on, she refuses to tell him anything.
What is this woman, twelve?
This is a stupid conflict. It’s motivated not by the heroine’s insecurity—usually until that point in the story she seems to trust the hero completely, and he’s given her no reason to distrust him—but by a highly contrived outside event. The author is overdosing on her RDA of coincidence. It’s also a conflict that could be solved by two minutes of talking (see Point 3), and the author knows that, which is why the two minutes of talking can never, ever happen.
Most Big Misunderstandings are of this kind, and it’s the reason angsty romances belong in bad fanfic, not fantasy. Fantasy is allowed to get away with being glorious and passionate and grand and, well, epic in a way that the other genres aren’t. Why do you want to waste that by introducing some stupid little buzzing thing?
Tragedy, on the other hand, is motivated by the characters’ internal conflicts. A heroine who is so insecure that she drives the hero away, for instance, is a participant in a tragic romance—along with the hero being proud enough to not come crawling back because he “understands,” and strong enough to tell her point-blank that she’s delusional. Two characters who are in love and on the opposite sides of a war, though an overused conflict, is one that can still be made fresh (as long as you don’t have them dying in each other’s arms, which tilts it towards pathos). Their principles are their principles, in that case, not something the author forced on them. They’re perfectly capable of being intelligent, rational people and still tragically incapable of coming to an agreement.
Let your characters suffer through some fault of their own. Wanting to keep the status quo at “no fault of their own” is one reason that so many things wind up angsty.
2. Character passivity vs. self-will.
This is somewhat related to point 1, but even a story with no contrived external conflicts can still become angsty if the author doesn’t take care to make her protagonists strong enough. And no, by strong I don’t mean a woman swinging a broadsword and declaring that she can take care of herself. (Most of the time, with that one, you only need to wait; within a hundred pages at the most, the woman declaring she can take care of herself will need to be rescued by some man). By strong I mean characters who are proactive, not only reactive, and who occasionally take charge of the story instead of serving only plot twists.
Once again, the author is perfectly capable of making her characters suffer, since that’s part of the definition of angst. The problem is that she can’t stand for them to suffer because they do stuff. So the characters stand around and look pretty, and problems are thrown at them.
And under this, I include poorly-done problems that are intrinsic to the characters. Number One, and most unfortunate victim, is when the author attempts to take an Issue and tack it on to her character. This character is no longer Mary Jo Goldeneyes. She is Mary Jo Goldeneyes, Abuse Victim. Or Mary Jo Goldeneyes, Cutter. Or Mary Jo Goldeneyes, Bulimic. Or Mary Jo Goldeneyes, Prostitute.
You may not think that last one fits in with the rest, but I assure you it does. Show me one fantasy novel character who actually became a prostitute through her own mistakes or through economic and social forces, and I will show you a diamond in a field of coal. Most of the time, she’s forced into it by her family or a former lover or the prejudice of others, oh the angst, and she cries silent tears in the night, oh the doom, and she dreams helplessly of the day that her one true love will come to take her away….
Ugh. Excuse me. My stomach just rebelled.
This keeps the character a passive toy of fate, a pure and innocent victim prostrate before the author and the Issue. It ignores certain real life problems, such as that abuse victims often become abusers in the future, or that cutters are not doing it to be artistic but to let pain out, or that bulimia has desperately bad health consequences. Or that prostitutes historically were not clean almost-virgins with hearts of gold; they were often diseased, the mothers of unwanted children, alcohol or opium addicts, and dead before their time.
“But this isn’t meant to be realistic,” the angsty author crouching defensively over her Issue may say. “This is meant to be fantasy.”
You want tragedy? You want the character to truly suffer things that will sear your reader’s heart, instead of just make her cry fake tears that are forgotten in a few hours? Then don’t cut the human heart out from this (or the elven or the gryphon or the werewolf heart, for that matter). Your character cannot be someone who takes on only the romantic aspects of an Issue. Then she remains an angst-magnet, and true tragedy doesn’t come within a mile of her. Let her suffer things that can’t be washed away. Let the Issue change her into someone who doesn’t do very nice things because of it. I find it hard to imagine that a character fighting desperately to protect the secret of her cutting would cry only crystal tears and bleed only in artistic patterns and never say anything mean or hurtful to another person who came too close to discovering the secret. I find it even harder to imagine that a child whose childhood was completely screwed up by abuse would grow up into a smiling, shining paragon of virtue, who relates to other people without effort.
Part of tragedy is that it’s irrevocable, that even though sweet things might happen in its wake, the sense of an even sweeter ‘what might have been’ is always there. If it can be washed away so thoroughly that you have a character who sparkles like she’s new when it’s done, if her only scars are the attractive kind, if she only suffered wrong and never did any, you have angst.
3. The Idiot Plot vs. the character-driven plot.
You know the Idiot Plot. It’s the one that only functions because all the characters in it behave like idiots.
This happens the most with villains, but it happens to angsty heroes, too. When it would make the most sense to listen to what someone else is telling him, the angsty hero chooses not to listen. And not because of some legitimate issue, like distrust of the person telling him the relevant bit of information; it comes because of his “inner turmoil” or something like that. Do spare me.
When two characters could solve their problem in two minutes by talking, the author will engage in furious hand-waving to make sure they never talk until the end of the book. The bad guy jumps in, the heroine runs away in one of those typical “I can take care of myself!” snits, aliens attack, whatever. Sometimes the characters never do talk at all, and angst is changed to sap, which is to joy as angst is to true tragedy.
When the main mystery to be solved depends on a clue that the reader can see from a mile away, the heroes will not see it, and not see it, and not see it. All their financial problems could be solved by finding the key that opens Queen Astalda’s diamond mine, for example, but even though the reader knows perfectly well that the key is the mysterious amulet the heroine’s dead mother gave her, no one else does. Why? Because then the author wouldn’t have the excuse for three hundred pages of hand-wringing and “We are so poor! Wah! Wah! Wah!” choruses.
The character-driven plot, on the other hand, has characters working at cross-purposes because it makes sense for them to do so. They may want completely incompatible things. They may have different sets of principles (the internal conflict thing again). Their commitment to each other may matter less than their goals. You may have a character who just cares more about power or vengeance or money or whatever than anyone else. This is the stuff of tragedy, once again, the heady sense of “Damn, if only…” rather than “If only the author would stop making random things happen.”
4. Sketchiness vs. weight.
Angst is usually very quick, whether it’s in a fanfic or a professional piece of fiction. The author barely sets up the situation before flinging long sob stories at the reader. Or there are lots of vague hints, but the reader isn’t given a good enough reason to care about the situation and the protagonists before the wailing starts. This is partly because a lot of angsty stories make good use of “used furniture,” shopworn situations that supposedly don’t need explaining because the reader has seen them a thousand million times before.
However, that very lack of explanation is what turns the story into Diet Coke. I don’t care about a young girl who gets her teddy bear cut up unless you tell me what makes her different, and special, and just how much the teddy bear meant to her, and how its loss will affect her life. (Though in that case, it should be more than a teddy bear; see point 5). You have to make me see Lellsy Jones bawling beside her teddy bear, and sniffling, and wiping her nose, and plotting evil vengeance with meat hooks. If I just see a young girl—probably one who doesn’t even get red eyes when she weeps, and doesn’t “bawl,” but “sheds a single translucent tear”—I’m not going to feel any compassion at all. Yes, I might cry, if the writing is done well enough. The problem is that it doesn’t end there. You haven’t infected your reader with a sense of tragedy if you’ve made her cry. Any sappy movie can do that. Disneymovies can do that. To win, you have to make your reader start wincing and feeling for that particular unique person, not just any young girl with her teddy bear in shreds.
This is Yet Another Good Reason (do you really need more by now?) not to begin your story with a scene of angst. We don’t know enough about this person yet. We’re not invested in her or her circumstances. Any tears we cry are false, based on pity for the situation, not the person. Or the reader is tearing up because of personal issues. I know I tend to get upset when beloved objects are destroyed, but I’m thinking more of how I would feel if someone went after one of my books, not the teddy bear. Keep the reader’s attention on the story.
Tragedies have weight, strength, inevitability. There comes a point in a truly tragic story where you know the characters can’t do any more. They’re locked into their desperate courses, and can’t change. That’s what makes the few purebred tragic fantasies, like Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan, or fantasies with tragic scenes in them, like The Lord of the Rings, so great. There is no solving Kay’s deep religious conflicts with a wave of the hand, and they turn good men against each other, men who would pay any price not to be turned—except giving up their faith. Tolkien’s Elves leave and fade and die, their Rings losing power when the One Ring is destroyed, and there is no miracle cure for that in the end. By the time we get to those parts, though, we have deep investment in the characters and worlds, and many scenes have also chipped away all the possible options one by one. Good tragedy plays hope like a harp, stretching out the notes until the moment when there are just no new songs left.
5. Misplaced priorities vs. good priorities.
This is a problem almost unique to angsty fantasy, but it can show up in other genres as well. Fantasy has all these grand concerns: saving the world, saving a soul, getting the right ruler on the throne, rescuing a dying race, and so on. Yet angst-authors continuously sabotage these grand goals with smaller ones, making what’s happening in a character’s love life or the shredded teddy bear more important than the world.
Now, it’s not necessary to make these into misplaced priorities. If you have a more personally-focused fantasy, or a fantasy where the world isn’t in danger, then the protagonist’s love-life may indeed be the most important concern. But usually the author presents a Great Wrong to be righted up-front. It’s a cliché of fantasy that the characters will start fleeing from the bad guy in the first three chapters, but it’s a cliché because it endures. It can still be powerful in the right hands.
So you have a scene in which the heroine is told that she is the last descendant of a line with a hereditary responsibility to chain the Werewolf of Gleledon up in his cave again. She nods solemnly, ponders the awesome weight of that charge, and accepts it.
Then, two chapters later, she’s convinced that the chauvinist guard insulting her is the worst pain in her life. More, the author expects the reader to feel the same way.
If you want to avoid angst, it is absolutely imperative that you develop the gift of showing your readers that the character’s perceptions are not identical with the world around her. She may feel that the chauvinist guard is the worst pain in her life, and two chapters later she may be consumed with dread at the thought of the teenage boy she likes noticing her. But the author should not force the reader, who will probably be thinking more about the Werewolf of Gleledon, to agree.
Push the angst too far, and it can become madly and unintentionally hilarious. The character skips like a pebble on shallow water from concern to concern, never really sinking into any of them. She comes off like an airhead because the author has decided that she must always be angsting about something. And when the Werewolf of Gleledon comes along, her defeat of it is entirely unearned. She didn’t spend the chapters of her quest learning skills to defeat it, or shedding her fears and growing courage, or learning something about herself that would enable her to look into the werewolf’s eyes and accept the beast in her. She just worried, and whined, and she got rewarded anyway.
That’s the second problem with misplaced priorities: the characters get given prizes for their stupid and shallow concerns. The girl who is daydreaming about the boy she loves is allowed to daydream in peace, even though if she’s doing it on sentry duty I would rather expect the watching bad guys to take advantage of it. Their worry is always instantly understood, accepted, and coddled by the people around them, and, worse, by the author.
Tragedy should be partly the character’s fault, as always, and if she becomes more concerned with the man “denying her independence” than with the Werewolf of Gleledon, I would expect the Werewolf to rip her heart out when she gets there. Remember Point 4: tragedy has weight. Niggling little concerns that don’t connect to each other make up the angst of everyday life, not tragedy.
Well, that was a long one. I hate angst so much, though (one reason I prefer to read humorous fanfic if I’m going to read fanfic; the amount of bad angst in fanfic is mind-blowing).