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Turn down the angst, please

Too many times, I’ve been reading a great story or novel with complex characters and deeply fleshed out relationships, only to be slapped in the face with a sopping tragedy.

This tragedy is always unwelcome.

Not just because it’s never enjoyable reading, no matter how good the writer’s style and voice are. No, what bothers me the most is why it’s there.

One example that I have strongly in mind is actually similar to something that I have done. One of the main characters, well-known for his cool indifference and outward equanimity, is in a committed relationship but somehow still has trouble saying “I love you” or using the word “boyfriend” to describe himself.

Rather than going into why this might change–the reasons for his feeling like this were already abundantly clear and well-explained–we get a tragic backstory.

The backstory dump did change his relationship situation. But why? It’s stupid. His girlfriend was already committed to him. She was actually hanging onto him and silently shouldering the effect his issues had on her. This guy developing past the known reasons for his commitment and vocabulary problems would really have been the order of the day.

Instead, I got more tragedy. He lived on the streets for a while and the scars persist to this day. I’m not going to diminish this real-life issue by saying something crass like “Boo hoo”. That isn’t the point and it isn’t how I feel. How I feel is that this was completely unnecessary and lazy writing.

His dark past is not the reason behind his present difficulty. It’s sort of tied in to other current story events, but they aren’t important events, and they are obviously there so that the dark past can be brought up. Like having a Christmas Episode so that the main character can exposit his sobstory about why he hates Christmas. Oy.

Maybe the idea is that sharing this sad thing in his life with his girlfriend would mean that he was able to open up to her and get them both to say I love you? I don’t buy it, if that’s the case.

It might come from the fact that this story was definitely written spontaneously. It’s a serial that doesn’t seem to have a chronology, just parts added in chronological order.

Still, it made me think. What I did that was similar was having a character something like that. He was a cool guy, indifferent and handsome. He was messed up seven ways from Tuesday, but for some reason he was really popular with readers. His troubles would come up from time to time, but they were still rather present difficulties in his life. Still very much in effect.

In his case, he had witnessed a horrible event which had set him on a path of therapy to beat the band. It was overdramatic and possibly even silly in retrospect. But I was a pretty dumb kid when I wrote it. I also never wrote it in the main story, just in notes and that kind of thing.

Still. I think I can say what might make someone use that kind of drama for a reveal or character development.

And since I have done it, I feel okay about decrying it. It is lazy, and it really looks like a dumb plea for attention. I knew someone in an RP who used it as exactly that.

Another character that I wrote much later, managed to skirt this issue. I’d like to think of that as a sign of growth.

This second character was an adult who had left his troublesome past behind in his childhood. It was still a bit dramatic, but if I were to write him into a new story, then I’d say that he was a willful child and his father was a bit heavy-handed. That this went too far once, and his mother kicked his father out as a result. That she had no way of knowing that some bumps and bruises were not just because her son climbed every tree and played in the street.

He was seven when his father broke his arm. He was seven when his father left. When he told his friends about this, he was fairly shruggy about it. Some tried to insult his father, and he would have none of it. He was an adult. He was okay.

People are like that. Do we really want to keep reading about the angst pots who moan on and create hints so that they can get a sobbing payoff? I know some people never get over some things. (hell’s bells do I ever know that) But some things just don’t work in fiction.

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