Friday, August 18, 2017

10 Tips for Writing Characters with Anxiety

Ah. I see you are writing a character with anxiety. Or at least thinking about it, since you clicked to read this article. Or perhaps you were just curious. Either way, welcome. 

If you are, indeed, writing a character with anxiety, allow me to let you in on a little secret: You’re probably doing it wrong.

Now, don’t panic! You’re probably making very normal mistakes. Writers tend to stereotype characters with anxiety or get the symptoms wrong. Thankfully, these are all pretty easy to fix. Here are 8 tips for creating a character with anxiety:
10 Tips for Writing Characters with Anxiety - Anxious about writing a character with anxiety? Don't be! Here are 10 tips to help you depict anxiety accurately.
1. Know what anxiety is. Anxiety is not just stress. It is not just nervousness. It is an almost innate unease and/or panic brought on by any number of events, sounds, or surroundings. There are different levels: From an inability to think clearly to full-on panic attacks. It looks different for everybody, so there isn’t really a cookie cuter "anxiety" label that you can slap onto your character. Yeah, I know that makes things harder for you. So sad.

2. Understand that anxiety is not a defining characteristic. So your character has anxiety? Well, that’s not fun for them. But that doesn’t mean that they have no other personality traits. Your character is allowed to enjoy working out. She’s allowed to enjoy college studies. He’s allowed to like cooking. They can and should have interested and defining character arcs that go beyond simply having anxiety. You don’t write anxiety and make it a character. You make a character, develop them fully with likes and dislikes and backstories, then give them anxiety. This rule applies to writing socially awkward characters, depressed characters, characters with chronic illness, and more.

3. Understand that anyone can have anxiety. Both your introverted and extroverted characters can have anxiety. Any of your characters can: Kings, cat ladies, professors, soldiers, children, athletes, thieves, punk biker dudes (somebody please do this), business executives. Anyone. It is true that some personality types may be less prone to anxiety, so don't shoehorn it in. But while you shouldn’t randomly slap anxiety onto any character that comes along, you shouldn’t be afraid of giving anxiety to a character-type who wouldn’t traditionally be expected to anxious. In fact, that could be a good interest point.

4. Choose the level of anxiety. Is it a mild issue? Or one that can be debilitating (such as an anxiety disorder)? Or is it one that’s usually mild, but can be pushed over the edge during certain events? Choose the one that makes the most sense for your storyline. For instance, a detective with anxiety could feel tense and wired at a crime scene, but it wouldn’t make sense for him/her to have a massive panic attack each time they go to work.

5. Pick the symptoms. Everyone reacts to anxiety differently. Keeping your character’s level of anxiety in mind, choose some symptoms. Here are a few, but there are many more:
  • Brain fog
  • Trembling
  • Inability to focus or make decisions
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Self-conciousness 
  • Immediately going to worst-case-scenarios in stressful situations 
  • Getting extremely quiet or extremely loud (depending on the personality) 
  • Fatigue. Because clearly, being anxious is a full-time and rather exhausting occupation. 
  • Trouble sleeping 
  • Sound sensitivity 
  • Racing mind/always feeling wired 
  • Muscle tension
  • Irrational fears
6. Decide why they have anxiety. Your character may have developed anxiety because they have a stressful life and were not given the tools to deal with it correctly. Or he may have always had anxiety for no definable reason because anxiety doesn’t always make sense. Maybe she only experiences anxiety in specific situations because of past negative experiences.  

7. Decide when their anxiety comes on (or is at it's worst): Maybe random things set him/her off, such as: Loud noises, being alone, being in a crowd, heights, speed, etc. Or maybe they're just in a constant state of slow-burning anxiety. Maybe only very specific events trigger panic attacks. You get to decide. But try to make it make sense to the character and the plot. Extraneous details that don’t add to the character or the storyline serve no point and should be discarded.

8. Do your research. If you don't have anxiety, yes, you absolutely can write a character with anxiety. If you're having trouble understanding his/her mindset, don't give up. Nobody likes a quitter. Just do some research. Either online or by talking to people who do have anxiety. 

9. Take breaks while writing. If you are writing a character with high levels of anxiety (especially if you're writing from a deep POV), then this is especially important. Writing panic attack scenes or just a very anxious character can (and often does) give writers second-hand anxiety. So don't forget to get up every once in a while. Drink some tea. Go for a walk. Don't panic. Do you hear me? Don't. Panic.
Note: In this gif scenario you are Ariel and I am a less-musically-talented version of Sebastian. Also: I don't have a Jamaican accent. So, basically, the only thing Sebastian and I have in common is that we're always vaguely annoyed with everything. And you probably don't have much in common with Arial because I assume you're not dumb enough to sell your voice to a witch to meet a random dude with good hair. *sigh* This was a terrible gif usage. I'm sorry. Moving on.

10. Remember that anxiety has to be the focal point of the story. I see a lot of books where the focus of the book is a character overcoming anxiety. It’s almost always a contemporary YA novel. Unfortunately, you cannot write a character with anxiety in any other genre. My fantasy novel has one, but shouldn’t because we all know you can’t be an assassin with anxiety. Your murder mystery novel can’t have one, because detectives can’t have panic attacks. Aliens don't have anxiety, so you can’t use this character trait in sci-fi. Even if it fits into the story, adds to a character, or will help your readers, you cannot give a character anxiety and not make it the point about which the entire story revolves. It simply isn’t done. Sorry.

Got it? Okay. Now get back there and start write a character with anxiety! Calmly. And rationally. 

Have questions or tips of your own? Please share them below! Also: Who is your favorite fictional character that struggles with anxiety? I must know.

Have writing or reading questions? Use the hashtag #ChatWithHannah and have them answered on my Youtube channel

Related articles:
Writing Introverted Characters: 8 Things You Should Know
8 Different Kinds of Strength to Give Your Characters
Writing Characters with Depression: What You're Doing Wrong

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37 comments:

  1. I've been around mild anxiety and this post is straight on. Love your blog!

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    1. Yay! I'm so pleased to hear this. Thank you!

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  2. I love the rapid switch to sarcasm in the last point. It's how I talk, and not everyone follows (whoops).

    Anyways, one of my characters may have mild anxiety, depending on which draft I'm working on. I like that aspect of her and it fits with her character, but I'm struggling with emphasizing both that and her... anger, for lack of a better word. This was a great reminder about balance! Also, I can't wait to one day read about your anxious assassin. That sounds awesome.

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    1. Ha. I'm glad I'm not the only one who does the rapid-switch sarcasm. =) I'm also really glad that people recognize this as sarcasm (so far, at least). It's always awkward when I get that one horrified comment from a poor person who didn't understand I was being sarcastic. =D

      I love the concept of your character having both anxiety and anger issues. That would be really interesting and complex! I'd love to read more about her. Also: Thanks for your interesting in Anxious Assassin! I love him, so I'm glad his concept appeals to you, too. =) *high five*

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    2. I've had anxiety for most of my life, but I've been able to gain control of it somewhat recently. Interestingly enough, my low-level anxiety comes out more as anger than panic. It's more of anxiety-fuelled anger than anything else. There's an illusion that comes with being annoyed or ticked-off that you are in control, that you are choosing to feel this way and act on those feelings. It takes a bit to figure out why exactly I'm feeling like this at that moment, but once I locate the elusive anxiety bubbling under the surface, I can figure out how to calm myself down.

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    3. Since the 'fight or flight' response is closely connected to anxiety, it makes sense that it would sometimes present as 'fight' instead of 'flight'. It doesn't really happen to me anymore, but in the past when my anxiety became overwhelming, at times it caused me to become furious, even if it's at nothing in particular. It was very unpleasant.

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    4. I read an online article earlier today which I now can't find the url for, that says anger is the visible tip of the iceberg for all kinds of other emotions hiding under the waterline. Maybe you can Google it. It made a lot of sense. Interesting for a writer, too.

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    5. I hadn't thought about how anger can come from anxiety. That's definitely something I'll look into- it might help me balance my character better. But her anxiety causes her to shut down and withdraw, while her anger is what involves her with the world. She's also very lonely, which plays into both aspects, I think.

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  3. Thank you for wonderful idea. I'm working on side characters for a short story series and I'd like one of the main character's street contacts to be a biker with anxiety. 'Cause why not? I needed a tough character from a gang anyway, why not make him weirdly realistic? Thanks! 😃

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    1. Ha! This is awesome! I would love to read this character. =)

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  4. Another thing I would like to see in fiction in general is a character who's completely on top of their anxiety. As someone who's worked for two and a half years to "get over" my disability, ive found it looks a lot different than I'd originally thought. Anxiety, or any mental illness, never goes away, and it will always pop up in certain situations. And that's okay. It doesn't make you any less of a person.

    It would be really neat to see a self-confident character, especially in YA, who's learned to live with anxiety in a healthy way. It would really benefit a lot of teens out there. Healing from mental illness isn't about wildly seeking a cure, its about learning to ride the waves. :)

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    1. This is a great thought, Sarai! I also would love to see more positive representations of people with disabilities. It would be encouraging and inspiring to all types of readers. I would LOVE to see a character with anxiety out there kicking butt and overcoming. Thank you for the awesome comment!

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  5. Excellent post, Hannah! I struggle with mild anxiety, but It's been a while now since I've had a panic attack. They're usually set off when I have to deal with people and/or school. I spent a year studying for my M.A. in England, and it was a trying experience. Statistics say that 50% of postgraduate students in the UK struggle with anxiety/depression. It's sad, but true.

    Thanks for point #2! My MC in my latest WIP struggles with anxiety, but I don't even bother to mention it in the blurb because it is not her defining feature. And while the story is contemporary, it's also fantasy. ;)

    A couple of books that portray anxiety accurately include Saving Red by Sonya Sones and Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner. Definite recommends!

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    1. As a fellow college student, I see how anxiety/depression is such a big issue. It's such an overwhelming environment at times, especially if people make you anxious. I'm so glad you haven't had a panic attack for a while! That is awesome.

      High fives for writing a fantasy novel with a character with anxiety! I want to read this WIP. =D

      I'm going to add those two books to my Goodreads list. Thank you so much for the recommendations!

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  6. how do I subscribe? thank you in advance! x

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    1. There's a bar for entering your e-mail address right under Hannah's profile (which is in the upper-right-hand corner of the blog). Enter your e-mail, and you're subscribed. :)

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    2. Thank you, Donna! Yes, just enter your email into the subscription button under my profile. Thank you so much for subscribing!

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  7. *spots Incorrigible reference* Yay! I'm so glad you used that! Thank you! \(>v<)/

    Great article as usual, Hannah! It made me really wanna write a character with anxiety. o3o

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    1. Haha! I put that in just for you. =D

      If you do end up writing a character with anxiety, let me know! I'd love to hear about him/her.

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  8. This was so helpful! I'll definitely be pinning it for later. I have a question - one of my characters, due to being kidnapped/almost dying/going through other stressful situations throughout the story, is permanently stressed and has many mental breakdowns. This is probably a dumb question, but did I accidentally write a character with anxiety? If I did, I'll do more research and incorporate it into the story and his character better. I'm just not sure if people with anxiety would read about him and think "look at that poorly-written character with anxiety; the author clearly didn't do a lot of anxiety research." Sorry if this is a stupid question, and thanks again!

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

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    1. Consider that the character could also be suffering from PTSD! That would be worth researching as well.

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    2. My protagonist's father has PTSD and that makes him anxious about his teenage son's safety. This prevents the son from reaching his goal in the novel.

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    3. So many great comments in response to yours, Ellie. Thank you, everyone!

      Like Blake and Julia mentioned, this could be PTSD. You can also develop an anxiety disorder from a traumatic event, which is closely-linked to (and often hand-in-hand with) PTSD. Totally not a dumb question! Thank you for asking.

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  9. My favorite character that deals with anxiety is Hannah Parker, the MC of Leah Banicki's book Runner Up. I can't give too much away because of spoilers, but as someone who does deal with panic attacks on occasion, Banicki did a spot on job on describing them!

    Catherine
    catherinesrebellingmuse.blogspot.com

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    1. This is so good to know, Catherine! Thank you for the recommendation.

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  10. Occasionally I have to recruit my friends to help me write characters who DON'T have anxiety. According to my counselor I must have had mild anxiety my whole life but not realized it? Which makes sense because it's mild and only flairs up in situations of high stress, but...now I just assume it's normal.

    Anyway, good post! :D

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    1. I guess that means your well-adapted? Which is good, so: *high five* Go you! =D

      Thanks for the awesome comment, Faith. Glad you enjoyed the post!

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  11. I absolutely love your blog, Hannah! As a Christian myself and an aspiring writer, this blog is so encouraging! I subscribed about a week ago and have probably read everything already. Your tips are always so helpful and encouraging. I absolutely love your Marvel and Star Wars quotes! Sometimes I read them and have to really restrain myself from laughing or smiling in class, because quadratics are generally something no one finds funny. I also love your sarcasm :)

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    1. YAY! I am so happy to hear this, Katia! I love putting in the nerd references, so I love that you love finding them. =) Thank you so much for the sweet comment. Made my day!

      Also: You read all my posts in one week? That is both very flattering and very impressive. =D I wish I had some kind of "hardcore blog reader" award I could give you.

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  13. Thank you... Your post is very inspiring :D Now, I know how to write character with anxiety.

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  14. *puts mental health advocate hat on top of writer hat*

    Thanks for talking about this, Hannah! I really enjoyed seeing this from a writer's perspective, since it can be difficult to know how to present anxiety in a story when you haven't experienced it yourself. And from the perspective of someone who's passionate about mental health, normalizing discussion about anxiety through stories is something I'd love to see. And that can only happen when we writers know how to do it well, so thanks for sharing your tips!

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  15. How my nervousness was cured
    i was in a business conference in midwestern Hotel room i was very much on edge i was snappy,argumentative high-strung everyone present realized i was in great nervous pressure my irritating attitude began to get on everybody's nerves. i went back to my hotel room and a friend of mine a business partner followed me he watch me while i took out my bottle of brackish-looking medicine and pure myself a dose.He ask what that medicine was,Something for nervous.my partner felt like going to break in pieces.I explained;The pressure i'm under make me wonder if i am going to crack up.and i try not to show it but i suppose even you fellows have observed that i'm nervous.This medicine was recommended and i've swallowed several bottle of it,but i don't seem to get any better.he laughed and said in a kindly manner,i don't know anything about that medicine you are taking maybe it's all right it probably is.,but i can give you some medicine for those nerves that will do you more good than that.I know it because it cured me and i was worse off than you are.What is this medicine reached out to his bag and pull out a herbal medicine i really never used this one before i said.and believe me this cured me of my nervousness.I placed my order for it and was delivered to my house i follow the instruction.When i took from the medicine! wow...i was dropped off to sleep and slept soundly.upon awakening i was refreshed and rested as if i'd had a good night sleep.i slept with a wonderful feeling of complete refreshed.you can also have that wonderful feeling i lost before just like me back and be free from nervousness just like me.Do not expose yourself to more danger, use a herbal remedy that is safe and effective. If interested contact him: vihparth030@gmail.com to find out more information about the treatment

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  16. thank you so much for writing this article! i'm a bit of an anxious person myself and i was planning on writing a main character in my sci-fi novel who has moderate panic disorder. as i've had panic attacks before, i can relate a little bit to the character, but i now know how to dive a bit deeper into his persona and really flesh him out a bit! thanks, hannah!!

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  17. Nice post.. Thank you for sharing this valuable information. You may also check Anxiety Disorders Natural Treatment
    Michael Smith MD

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  18. Being depressed can make you feel helpless. You're not. Along with therapy and sometimes medication, there's a lot you can do on your own to fight back. There are plenty of ways to naturally lift a mildly dreary mood. visit http://www.hashmidawakhana.org/natural-supplement-to-treat-anxiety-and-depression.html

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  19. I can't remember the name right now but Cassandra Clare's most recent series- the one with Lady Midnight and etc (man don't I just have the best memory) has a family where one of the brothers has autism and nobody knows because they are shadowhunters and don't believe in that, until a kid raised as a human comes along.

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