Characters: Suffering and Anxiety

Writers are supposed to make our characters suffer. As Gail Carson Levine says in her excellent book, Writing Magic, the suffering of our characters is what keeps readers interested and turning the page. Readers want to know what happens, how a character gets out of a fix, if the character will ever stop making terrible decisions that get him or her into trouble, if the character will live happily ever after.

Some writers have a hard time making their characters suffer. I’ve never really had that problem. In fact, when I was a kid, people seemed to think my stories had a little too much jeopardy. My characters have lost friends and family (from things like moving or even death), they’ve been injured and wounded, some have nearly died, they struggle and struggle only to find their goals consistently out of reach. I feel bad for them at times and try to give them happy moments, but I feel that what happens to them is just how the story goes. I want to tell the story accurately and to make it the best it can be.

But there is one kind of suffering that I hate to give my characters, and I don’t know if I really can: anxiety. Anxiety is such an awful thing that I’d hate to give that to anyone, even a fictional character. On the more practical side, anxiety is really hard to describe. I feel it in my stomach, but how to describe that feeling? I wasn’t even aware it was a problem until a counselor put a name to it. How could I make a reader understand how that feels? Would I want to? Would I want my character to go through that?

Anxiety is truly miserable. It makes it hard to function, but for some people or some times, it is possible to function through it. It looks different for different people.

I’m still exploring the arcs for a couple of characters who may have some anxiety. I hope, for their sakes, that they don’t. But maybe it’s okay if they do. Anxiety is a real thing, and sometimes it helps us to read about someone who struggles with the same things we do. It helps us to realize that we aren’t alone.

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