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Using Anxiety to Create Character Story Arcs
My last few blog posts were discussing what anxiety is from a clinical standpoint. Today, we’re going to bring all the pieces together and discuss how you can use this to form a character/story arc.
I discuss some of this information during my personality series specifically on trait neuroticism, so if this is information that interests you, be sure to check out THIS ARTICLE to read more about this topic. As always, this information is not to be used for diagnosis or treatment in any capacity, but is only a guide for creative writing and character development.
If you have been exposed to any writing theory at all, then you are probably at least a little familiar with standard story structures. This is the form in which most stories go: First there’s an introduction followed by an inciting incident, then there’s the middle stuff as the character tries to manage the change in their world that was caused by the inciting incident. Everything comes to a head in the climax followed by the resolution. Now I’m going to describe this using what we’ve previously discussed in anxiety terms.
Most characters are living life a relatively normal way whether they be a young teen or an expert secret agent. Then a stressor occurs: teen is in a major car accident and loses her leg; secret agent is betrayed and watches helplessly as his entire team is killed. This stressor will cause a psychological and physiological response in the character (see post: Anxiety for Writer’s Summarized). Depending upon what type of story you are writing, you may want to linger here for a bit. If your character is a teen suffering from loss of limb, a good portion of the story might be spent on failing to accept herself, falling into a depression, and journeying out. (Keeping in mind that these mental health conditions are linked and anxiety often leads to depression. For more information on types of anxiety disorders, what they look like, and why they might manifest, see post: Writers Guide to Mental Health: Anxiety Disorders)
At some point in the story, a decision by your character, conscious or otherwise, needs to be made. Are they going to live in a continual state of anxiety? Or are they going to move forward and out of that state?
Your character may not come out of it. They may fall into a depression and that’s how the story ends. Keep in mind that is an option. A tragic option, but an option nonetheless.
If your character does seek help and healing, they will probably go through some sort of a process where they face their fears and become more courageous. This can be through self-initiative or with the formal help of a therapist. How this happens will be determined by a lot of factors including your story type, setting, and character’s personalities. For information on how anxiety is treated in a clinical setting, check out my post: Writers Guide for the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders.
Probably the best, well-known story to use as an example in bringing all this together is Batman. Bruce Wayne is afraid of bats. They cause an anxiety related response, so he exposes himself to these bats until he is braver. Then he channels the bat in order to defeat the underworld.
Of course, this is just a superficial representation of what is taking place in the broader story as a whole. Bruce Wayne experienced a trauma when his parents were murdered by members of the criminal underworld. For years, he struggled with the grief and fear of this event. Then he channeled his fears, became a criminal vigilante, and confronted them and defeated the criminal underworld.
It’s a simple formula, really, but it is scientifically and psychologically based and serves as a good formula to create story arcs and character arcs. If you can think of other stories that follow this similar pattern, please name them in the comments below.
RW Hague is a registered nurse with over eight years of experience within the medical field. Using her medical expertise, she writes stories that are gritty and compelling.