Writing Anxious Characters

I’m an extremely anxious person and I think that comes across in a lot of my writing. My protagonists are often anxious beings, because that’s the mindset I understand well enough to portray at the centre of a story.

I avoid using the words ‘anxious’ or ‘anxiety’ in my writing as much as possible, as I think they are all-encompassing and easy words to describe a much more complex physical and emotional reaction.

My stories are either in dream-like worlds, distorted realities or far-away dystopian futures, which hardly follow the much-repeated motto of “write what you know”. Despite what I can extrapolate from current governments, we’re not quite in a classically dystopian society just yet — so beyond dreaming, and living under Trump, I can’t say that I intimately know the settings I write about.

That’s why I tend to make my central characters anxious and neurotic people. If the situation isn’t familiar, then at least the subjects navigating it will be. As someone with a fairly serious anxiety disorder, I don’t make my characters quite as stricken as I am — as they actually need to be able to mobilise and get things done beyond reclusively working at home.

Their call to action is my call to action.

I think that anxiety in characters makes for a well-rounded, three-dimensional individual. The way I’m about to explain this — via a list of character flaws and strengths — will make it appear as though I use anxiety as a quick cheat-sheet for character development at the start of a novel. Which may well be the case. But I’d like to think that if anyone gets to do this, it would be a writer who could portray the feelings and sensations of the mental health issue accurately, through experience.

So here are the strengths and weaknesses of an anxious character:

Weaknesses

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Neurosis — This relates to over-thinking. My protagonists will often over-think a situation to the point that nothing practical is being done. The situation is well analysed, which helps provide exposition or potential solutions, but to what end? That’s why some of my secondary characters are the more get-up and go types.

Selfishness — Anxiety sufferers worst fear is being labelled as selfish. The truth is, from the outside perspective we often seem so. We’re inwardly thinking about other people all the time, but take very few practical steps because we assume that everyone is thinking about the world in this way. So, my protagonists often assume that those around them are thinking in the same way that they are, and therefore lead others down paths they wouldn’t normally go on.

Panic — My characters with anxiety will emotionally react first and think second. After they’ve thought, they’ll combine the logic with their original emotional response to create a positive, but it’s that original reaction that often lands them in trouble.

Weight of the World — Given that my protagonists are usually in a situation where there’s something wrong with their environment or the world they live in — that means there’s always something to be fixed. Through neurosis and selfish thinking, my anxious characters will take on more than they can handle before they decide to reach out for help, making the problem worse than it would’ve been had they worked as a team from the start.

Strengths

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Empathy — Many studies have linked anxiety disorders with a heightened sense of empathy. My protagonists feel for people, and notice when others’ emotions are declining or when they are suffering in silence. Asking how people are feeling is what gets people talking, and so the plot is pushed forward through little moments of empathy.

Analysis — Like an in-control neurosis. As long as my character has someone around them to keep them grounded, so they can use their anxiousness as a method of problem-solving, then this is definitely a positive. They’ll look at a situation from multiple angles and decide the best course of action.

Leadership — Anxious people make for great leaders of talented teams. Put an anxious person in a room full of people who simply want to follow, and the anxious person won’t do a good job. But, put an anxious person in charge of a group where each member has very specific talents, and they’ll co-ordinate that group to the best of its’ ability. Given that my secondary characters usually have specific talents, traits and skills — my analytical and introspective protagonists slot into natural, situational, leadership roles.

An Alarm Bell — Other than during dramatic second-act twists from the antagonists, my protagonists can usually tell when something is about to go wrong. Due to the constant analysis of their environment, they understand when they’re about to push something too far, or when danger is coming. With dramatic writing this leads to a lot of situations where my protagonists can go right to the edge without falling. At least this is the case earlier on in the narrative, sometimes you have to fall.

This isn’t to say that all of my protagonists are simply walking balls of anxiety who behave in these exact ways, with these exact traits, in everything I write. They have much more layered on top of them; Everything else that goes into well-rounded characterisation.

Anxiety typically acts as a base for my central characters because it’s the mindset I know. I’ve grown out of the habit of writing everything in first person present tense, as this pushes me to get across the emotions of a character via third person past tense. Which is a lot more challenging, but equally far more rewarding for the narrative as a whole, as well as for secondary characters who aren’t typically given the luxury of perspective.

I’d love to hear about the general make-up of protagonists in your written works. Do you write what you know situationally, and therefore not worry as much about the characters being so familiar? Or do you, like me, often put a small piece of yourself into each of your central characters? I’m extremely curious.

Best of luck to anyone writing this weekend. I know you can open that document and get some solid words down. Express those thoughts and feelings into words — you silver-minded devils you.


Today is Saturday, August 18th and there is some quality professional wrestling on tonight.

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5 thoughts on “Writing Anxious Characters

  1. The protagonist in my series has a generalized anxiety disorder (because I do). I found that writing her this way helped me put actual words to the sensations (panic attacks, difficulty breathing, panic-brain) that I feel. And giving her an arc that led to her working through some issues has been weirdly therapeutic to me. I still haven’t tried to write a character who’s obsessive compulsive (like I am), because OCD thoughts are so scary that I haven’t found the guts. Great post, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s great that it’s therapeutic for you 🙂

      I imagine you’ll get there with an OCD character at some point down the line, as you’ll have the best possible perspective

      Best of luck with your series, and thanks for sharing!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As another anxious person I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to talk about why Gavin anxious character are important. I think the fact that some of the weaknesses can be strengths and vice versa can lead to interesting and engaging characters.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely, a lot of my personal therapy has been centred around the positive side-effects of having an anxiety disorder, and trying to focus on those as much as possible (when I can). Writing anxious characters definitely helps me to see the strengths clearer.

      Thanks for taking the time to give this a read 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fellow anxiety sufferer here, so I found this really interesting to read! I also love the fact you use this as the element of writing what you know, while you explore other worlds. Brilliant.

    Liked by 1 person

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