I didn’t intend to write another rant this soon, but this one just kind of tumbled out.
But there’s no reason you can’t use cattle prods on it.
1) VARY THE ANGST.
Such simple advice, which is why it goes first (and because it’s stolen, in a way, from the last rant). Come on. Must the character angst in the same way about everything? Must everything that ever happened to him be traumatic? And must every angsty character have suffered the same kind of angst?
- People are capable of actually reacting in different ways to, say, different varieties of abuse. (See point 9). The character doesn’t need to break down in tears every single time. (Or always do the things targeted in points 2 and 6). Angst bores me most often because it’sredundant. We’ve already seen her play this mind-game with the people trying to reassure her, yawn. Can we get some other stance from her now?
- Pile on trauma after trauma after trauma, and it hits the point where, I’m sorry, I just refuse to believe any more. (See point 8). Yeah, you can argue that that happens in real life, victims passing from pissy situation to shitty situation to neck-deep-in-shit situation, but guess what? Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it’s allowed to be. In fiction, you do have to show that these events make sense and have a reason for being there—and you have to make them interesting, too. It’s too easy to turn to nonfiction if we want to read a chronicle of endless suffering. So, when the character’s already been sexually abused, seen her little brother die in a fire, been singled out as “different” and beaten up because she’s telepathic, told she could destroy the world with a stray thought, had her first love betray her, been physically abused by her next caretaker, and cast out from her new village, reconsider having her puppy get stabbed to death. Please.
- It’s way too easy to just keep hitting the same angst button over and over again, even when you’ve gone on to a different story or a different protagonist. You might not notice, but I assure you the readers will, if nearly all the protagonists you ever write about anymore are adult female survivors of child sexual abuse who also happen to be Speshul (hello, Charles de Lint), or all short angsty beautiful women who “just happen” to be madly attractive to tons of men they don’t really want to have sex with but must for “plot” reasons (big fat hello, Laurell K. Hamilton), or angsty pretty violet-eyed gay men who are all physically abused (if an author fits this, no one tell me who it is). Just trying to write about someone with a normal life once in a while is a good antidote to that. If you find that impossible, at least try going for a kind of angst you haven’t played with already.
2) Having your character distrust the motives of people trying to reassure her has to make sense.
I think this is the second biggest reason that fantasy angst gets so redundant (the first is just the fact that authors often write the same scene or conversation or inner monologue over and over again). When the protagonist’s friends do try to reassure her that she’s innocent/beautiful/a good person, she distrusts their motives and endlessly dismisses their reassurances.
…Because, of course, your friends always take such joy in lying to you.
Laurell K. Hamilton is a prime example of this. Anita Blake, her major series character, began the books admitting she wasn’t that physically attractive. Now she’s surrounded by dozens of different men who tell her over and over again that she’s beautiful, and she believes none of them, so once again they must tell her. And she disbelieves them, so they reassure her. And on and on the circle goes, until I want to gnaw Anita’s arm off, so she could at least ask if she still looks beautiful with a limb gone.
Look. Yes, the character may have psychological reasons to doubt her own beauty/innocence/skill/goodness/whatever. But remember what I said in the first point about fiction not being reality? Yeah. Whereas, in real life, people may have no choice but to cope with that psychological reason, in fiction it gets really fucking tiresome as the author plays it out, no matter how “true” to real life it may be. (And, of course, there’s the question of whether angsty fantasy novels are “true” at all in how they deal with their characters’ issues. See point 7). If the protagonist has reason to doubt the person trying to reassure her—he’s a pathological liar, for example, or someone who’s made fun of her in the past—fine. Otherwise, this is just a mind game that makes the angst repetitive, and eventually makes your protagonist seem like an utter clingy limpet who can’t go anywhere without a Greek chorus of praise.
3) There is nothing wrong with saving some dark secrets.
This especially applies if you’re writing a series. Again, one reason I like Jim Butcher’s Dresden books is that he doesn’t dump a Boulder of Angst on Harry’s head in the first book. There are hints that Bad Things have happened to Harry; very few of them are specified. Then, in the second book, he gets some disturbing hints about his parents’ past. The third book uses the Triple Whammy of Harry doing something horrible (yes, genuinely horrible; see point 10), something horrible happening to a friend of his, and bad consequences lingering around from a case that was solved before the book begins. The fourth book lets Harry recover somewhat, even though he’s in danger. The fifth book involves an enemy of his psychologically flensing him by exposing a lot of his own dark secrets to him—still one of the scenes I like best. The sixth book clamps down again by flinging Harry’s past straight at him. Then the seventh book is a more introspective, recovering one again.
It’s a nice balance of fictional progression and trauma. No, it might not be completely realistic to give Harry pauses every now and again, but without them, the series could become unbearable in the amount of suffering Harry endures. And thus Butcher neatly avoids that trap of piling on so much trauma the reader just starts laughing.
4) You can add a touch of horror to it.
And yes, I think horror is different from angst. Angst is often handled with a mixture of tears and sarcasm (see point 9 again). Horror raises fear and disgust, as well as a sense of the unknown and the idea that the victim won’t necessarily escape.
The example that leaps first to mind for me is Stephen King’s The Shining. You know pretty much from the start that this little family has problems; one thing King always does is give you a lot of character information. But not every consequence of it is yet visible. The main characters aren’t just whimpering relics of their dark pasts, the way that far too many fantasy heroes are. Worse things happen. Foreshadowing happens. Then worse things happen. And then worse things happen. Yet those consequences are linked to the problems the family already has, as well as the place they move to. And yes, there’s fear and horror rising, instead of just angst. That’s one reason the atmosphere of that book strikes me as so choking; escaping the darkness is not as easy as blurting everything out to someone in a wave of tears, and having that person rub the character’s back and resolve to tell the abuser off.
This is another way of avoiding the trauma-piling trap, this time by varying the angst as per point 1. Worse things can happen because the response to them is emotionally more complex than simple angst.
5) Simultaneous suffering.
This ties in tightly to a point I’ve made many times now: while the protagonist is acting, the rest of the characters do not just freeze. They still have their own lives, and their own actions. So, while the hero sits in his prison cell and broods, someone else might be rushing around gathering an army to rescue him. At least, I hope so. I hope they’re not all standing around helplessly because their leader was also their brain.
So, while one character is suffering, other characters can be suffering, too.
This sounds pretty simple, and I think it is. But when the book centers on an angsty protagonist, it’s less likely to happen. Often, other people will have dark pasts, but that will be in the past. They don’t have bad things happen to them while the protagonist is angsting. They aren’t living through the consequences of their abuse while she’s living through hers.
Dumb. The world does not halt when a bad thing happens to one person, and why should it? The usual example of this is the sun shining even on the day of a funeral. But somewhere, people are starving on that day, too. Bring that simultaneous suffering onto the stage of a fantasy novel, and you have automatically varied your angst.
6) Please don’t play the “Who’s More Tormented?” Game. Oh, please.
This is the mechanism for prolonging angst and making it repetitive that I hate the third most (whiny inner monologue and irrational distrust of every comforter’s motives are still the first two). Here, it seems as though the author is about to obey the principle of simultaneous suffering; another character mentions that X bad thing happened to them.
And then the author has the angsty protagonist think, “Oh, but that’s not nearly as bad as what happened to me!” And her mind jumps to the memory and we’re chewing it over like stale vomit again, or she talks about it, and the other character lowers their eyes in shock or shame. To dare to have complained about their own puny lives, when she’s suffering so much!
A variant of this is when one character says, “What do you know about [Problem X]?”, and then the protagonist shows the scars on her back, or tells her traumatic story. This always shocks people into silence. I want to know why it’s silence. Surely, if she intends to use that story or evidence of torture as a political weapon, someone else will jump on it and try to wrest it away from her, not just stand there with jaw dangling. (I really hate it when usually witty and articulate characters can’t say anything because of what the protagonist says or does. Most of the time, it’s not that shocking).
Comparing suffering and having your protagonist automatically win is just cheap. Besides, I bet that some of the things other people survived would have broken her. People have different tolerances. (Point 9, again).
7) Because Destiny makes it all better!
Occasionally, angst is in a book because the author feels very strongly about the source of the angst—sexual abuse, the suicide of a loved one, or abortion, say—as a real-life issue. So she puts it in her book to increase awareness.
Fine. Fiction does that. Sometimes it even works.
But fantasy has a special problem with this portrayal of real-life angst generators. Consider: is the means by which your character overcomes this issue in your fantasy world actually applicable outside the book?
Because, of course, people who are sexually abused in the real world don’t have grand destinies showing up all the time. Or sympathetic wizards who tell them they have magic. Or “mind-healing” that makes their problems better in just a few days.
This is why I want more fantasies that focus on the actual healing, instead of the suffering. The characters suffer, and suffer, and then have a wand waved over their heads, literally, and suddenly they’re stronger and past their issues and in a position of power to take revenge on the people who hurt them.
Except that, you know, it usually doesn’t work that way in the real world.
If you want to increase awareness of an issue you feel strongly about, consider increasing awareness of how hard it is to recover from, too.
8) There has to be a basement.
Sooner or later, your protagonist has to have an untainted memory. Or a good thing happen. Or a limit to the number of bad things, instead of talking about a horrible memory and then hinting darkly, “There’s still more that happened, but I won’t tell you about it yet!”
Yes, the suspension-of-disbelief issue is the primary reason. The character who only exists to have more and more angst heaped on her is just as much a cardboard cutout as the one who exists only to have good things heaped on her. I start seeing a body that’s abused at the whim of the author, not an abused person.
Another reason is that the author often contradicts herself when she gets too excited about all the horrible things that happened to her character. The protagonist has “no friends.” Oh, no, wait, she has one friend! That’s the person she goes to for help about the middle of the book, when she needs a place to hide. But I thought she had no friends? Make up your mind, author.
Likewise, she has “no escape.” And then we find out that she had a private place to escape to, or an artistic talent that sustained her and freed her mind for a while. Okay, so her life was not 24-7 trauma. Then why did you say it was?
It’s hard to write without a basement to the angst. I think it’s probably impossible to do it and still have the character be a) a real person and b) interesting.
9) There are other reactions to trauma than tears and sarcasm.
The most common mentally scarred protagonist is the one who has flashbacks and nightmares, and cries a lot. If she has a defense mechanism, it’s sarcasm. And that. is. it.
You have got to be shitting me.
Where are the people who manage to partially heal, so that they might be triggered but they’re not constantly having nightmares anymore? I’ve met more of them in real life than people as scarred as most fantasy protagonists are. Frankly, a lot of those protagonists strike me as unable to cope with their own lives, so severe is their angst.
Where are the people who go numb, repressed, emotionless? Oh, sure, sometimes you get the “emotionless” assassins. Except they turn out to be angry and sarcastic. Anger’s an emotion, dearest author.
Where are the people who cope by becoming abusers themselves? The cycle of abuse can continue from one generation to the next so easily because victims learn to strike out and inflict fear and pain on others, or actually think that treating others as they were treated is fine. Yet it seems every abuse victim who’s a fantasy protagonist retains her compassion, and never hurts anyone else. If she does, the author excuses it as striking back at those who deserve it (for God’s sake, point 10), and justified vengeance, not abuse.
Where are those who become callous, and decide this is just the way the world works? Some fantasy assassins do touch close to this, but almost always, they turn out to only kill those who “deserve it,” and they won’t kill children or some such nonsense that gives the lie to their hard skins. (Point 10 needs to be drummed into the heads of people who write assassin characters). Also, while fantasy protagonists of this stripe will kill and steal quite happily, they aren’t rapists, they aren’t bigots, and they are almost never non-monogamous. Awww. Isn’t that cute? (It’s also nice to know that rape is off-limits, but murder is okay!)
Consider some other response. Not all people who survived trauma are broken angels.
10) If the character’s angst comes from horrible things he’s done, don’t excuse every single one of them.
I start vomiting when I encounter the aforementioned assassin who only kills people who “deserve it’—I’m glad he personally communes with God to determine that, then—or the woman who thinks she killed her whole command because of a stupid decision and then it turns out she did the right thing and is a hero after all.
Can no one ever just make a mistake? No, because they must be protected from the consequences of their actions at all costs! If they angst, they must never have caused their own angst! Redemption is only for villains and people who oppose the protagonist!
I swear, I want to write a fantasy novel where the character does a horrible thing in the first chapter, is tormented by guilt, and makes up for it. Instead of sitting around in the guilt and wallowing which, you know, helps absolutely no one at all.
If you’re going to tarnish your character’s soul, please don’t scrub that tarnish out of existence and claim he was always the purest silver.
…My, that one got bitchy.