Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal. — Albert Camus
I’m approaching—with caution—a subject that’s on my mind. It’s on my mind a lot.
Angst. Angst in our writing. My writing included. Remember as I progress that I said, emphatically: MY WRITING, TOO.
All who know me have heard me gripe and moan about my weariness of angst in stories. Authors just can’t seem to write enough of it and readers just can’t seem to read enough of it.
What is it about angst? Why do we like to cry so much? Why are books given a Kleenex rating? The more hankies it takes to get through a book, the better.
Why do we get giddy with anticipation when an author warns us that we’ll need to buy stock in the tissue company when we read this book or that book?
Why do we cheer like lazy, over-fed Roman spectators at a gladiator bout when an author tells us—with a fiendish gleam in their words—that they just off’d a character or maimed them in some horrific way?
Why is a book that is light on angst called ‘fluff’? (Which I kind of find demeaning, as it seems to imply silliness and emptiness simply because it doesn’t include trauma). When—in all fairness—books in which nothing traumatic and tragic happens are usually as well written and as good as stories with those elements.
There’s a lot of debate on the subject. Some suggest that those who don’t like angst in their books are not in touch with real life and, therefore, cannot take the stuff in their reading either.
On that, I can only say. Whoa. Back up, baby. I know angst, I’ve known angst in my life. Angst and I are old buddies. As a mother who lost her son (son-in-law, but he was a son to me) to a long battle with cancer, I am no stranger to tragedy and trauma. So to suggest I can’t handle constant Kleenex use while reading because I’m not in touch with reality? Nuh-uh. Not so. You take that back.
My beta read for one of my WIP’s and questioned me. Seems I’d—oh, geez, I’m blushing—thrown a handicap into the equation and she confronted me. She wanted to know why. She knew my stance on angst-for-the-sake-of angst and wondered why I, of all people, had decided to use this handicap. She cornered me. What did this condition add to the story, she wanted to know? I had to confess. Absolutely nothing. It was, I will admit, for sympathy. I, Vastine Bondurant, confess. I wanted to make it more dramatic.
But the funny part…
My newest novella, Glory Lands, does have an angst angle. I didn’t take pleasure in incorporating the element into the story. And by that I refer to the fact that I see so much joking in the author community about how we enjoy torturing our characters. The worse, the better, I hear. I’m never sure if this pride—a sort of medal of honor—in maiming and torturing is for deep impact, to make the book so shocking you can’t forget it. Who knows? And I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, it’s just the way it is. And, sugar pie, I’m not even going to say I’ll never pull that myself. My earliest and dearest mentor—a lovely Sicilian gentleman—always urged me to kill, kill. They will remember it, he said.
And now. To the reason I’ve taken a hard look—a very careful audit—of my own motives when I go the angst route.
I got hit with my personal bottom line. My big internal question.
Are my characters compelling enough, can they draw enough emotion on their own—just by being ordinary humans—without suffering additional handicaps?
In my heart, the crucial factor…
Character depth. For me, writing a character without an external angst element—whether it be physical or mental—is almost like walking a tight rope without a net. No props to make him/her interesting. Just the naked, pure, ordinary person. Is my writing strong enough to just take an everyday Joe off the street and get to a reader’s heart without wounding him?
Can he just suffer plain ol’, normal heart aches like any guy and still capture a readers’ heart? Depends on how powerful I can paint him.
But can I do that? Like I wondered, is my writing strong enough? Or does he need a physical ailment to grab a heart? Can he just die inside over a lover and you’ll want to die with him because you love him so much?
Can he just be so very human that you relate to him just because?
Believe it or not, to carry that off is not easy. To create a character who is that strong is difficult, not to mention scary. To write him without a crutch, a ‘sure thing’ to grip the mind and heart. Nothing to lean on but his soul.
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying physical and mental obstacles are not as real and as huge a factor in fiction as they are in real life. They are, and I use them myself. Remember, I DID tell you I use angst in my writing, too. I truly do.
I crave the challenge of trying to present an ordinary Joe who you just love to love, and cry when he cries, laugh when he laughs. And you do so because you see yourself in him, your deepest self. Not because I threw him off a cliff or cut off his arms or legs to tug your heart. But because I bared open his soul to you, every human bit of it. Warts and all.
He’s YOU when you break up with a lover. You’re not in a body cast, you’re not maimed, but do you hurt like hell.
He’s YOU when you fall in love all over again and your heart is about to bust with the goodness of it. You’re not in physical pain but you cry anyway because you hurt so good.
This quote by Gilbert K. Chesterton hit home with me: Nothing is poetical if plain daylight is not poetical; and no monster should amaze us if the normal man does not amaze.
It took a while for it to sink it to me. But then I saw it. Normal, just plain normal, is a mighty force in itself and can run very, very deep. The character is the foundation. He’s got to touch us first, he has to be strong enough to make us care (or hate sometimes) all on his own. The angst should only make us bawl our guts out because it’s happening to HIM, not because it’s just angst.
So I wonder about my own writing. Can I make my characters that deep? Can I create a guy who—just by being a guy, a real, nothing-wrong-with-him-except-he’s-100%-human guy—can still grab a reader’s heart?
I’m going to put as much heart as I can into every character I write. I’m going to try to make sure they have enough human element to be recognizable to everyone who reads them. Not their faces, their bodies, their circumstances. But their souls.
Oh, sure, I’ll have angst in my books, too. I like it as much as the next person. But my biggest goal will be the characters FIRST. Make them beautiful enough inside—and by beautiful, I mean nothing but pure, simple, glorious human hearts—and anything else that falls into their lives…well…
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