Worry; being uneasy about a situation and possible outcomes. Most stories involve an element of worry, the origin of which will likely have something to do with your stakes. The existence and severity of a character’s worry can have implications on not only the importance of the stakes, but also the character’s resilience.
Too many times I've read scenes in novels where two characters sit down for a quiet chat and one says to the other, "What's wrong?" The second replies, "I'm just… worried." My reaction to this is, 'Are you really, though?' because many-a-time, the author has neglected to show that worry anywhere other than dialogue and thought tracking.
Worry needn’t be just an emotion that occurs once in your story. When strong enough, it can affect you mentally and physically. In turn, these effects can impact your life. In the case of your characters, the impact of a single emotion can push the plot in a different and unexpected direction, or add unforeseen obstacles and challenges. Today’s post will look into making ‘worry’ count.
First things first, however, you need to consider your character’s resilience:
Resilience: the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.
Before writing worry, decide how resilient your character is. This will affect not their level of worry (this depends on what is at stake), but how that worry affects them. They will have more or less physical and mental symptoms of worry depending on their hardiness. This hardiness (or weakness) will be a result of past experiences or their life circumstances, so think carefully about why your character reacts the way they do.
For example, consider a girl sitting down for a class test. All the other kids are reasonably anxious, but your main character is freaking out; her parents have high expectations, and she knows that if she gets less than an A+, a tirade of insults awaits her at home.
Alternatively, consider the CEO of a successful start-up. She used to live on the street, but worked her way into a position of success. However, one day a major investor pulls out and the company is put at risk. Does she worry? No; she’s been through worse. She started from the bottom once, she’ll do it again.
Now, let’s look at some of the real impacts that worry can have on your character and plot, and how you can use them to authenticate your character’s feelings:
Daily Life Changes
If your characters are worrying, bear in mind that evidence of this won’t just appear in the moment. Worry can have lasting and significant effects on the daily life of your characters. For example:
They may lose their appetite, which can lead to weight loss and malnourishment. In turn, character’s may fall ill more easily or frequently. Your character could also easily fall down the dangerous path of substance abuse. Alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and even food can be binged on, resulting in dangerous overdoses. This type of blip will cause a real stutter in your character’s arc, and has the potential to throw a story completely off course, if you so wish!
They may be unable to sleep, which can lead to foul moods, difficulty concentrating, and memory problems. This can be due to worries keeping them awake, hypervigilance (being too wary of surroundings to sleep), or nightmares (which wake them).
They may be unable to concentrate. This could be due to sleepless nights, or that they simple can’t stop fretting about their worry. Consider how this might affect their work at school, college, or their job.
Worry isn’t just about fretting over possible outcomes; It can affect a person’s entire demeanour.
Due to the life impacts of worry discussed above (and more below), a character’s general outlook can easily become very pessimistic; they may start to only see the world in a negative light. To reflect this, the tone of your writing may darken. Your focus may shift from the brighter aspects of scenes to the dingier aspects. Your character may often jump to conclusions, always assuming the worst, even in unrelated circumstances to the main worry.
For example, when looking at a street of cafes and bakeries, rather than smelling the pastries, and admiring the quaint shop fronts, your character may focus on the dank alley dividing the street. A cockroach scuttles over the damp pavement. Something shifts in the shadows—probably a cat—but to your character, it is an axe murderer.
Small details such as this don’t explicitly mention the source of the worry, or even the emotion itself, but they do characterise your character’s observations in such a way as to imply their state of mind.
Connecting to my previous point, the thought processes and personality in your character that your reader is familiar with may change. As a result of the worry nagging at their mind, your character may experience a personality shift, adopting new traits and thought processes. For example:
Unconfidence; they become unsure of themselves and their choices. Suddenly, they are unable to make decisions, which can frustrate themselves, as well as others.
Paranoia; alongside hypervigilance and overprotectiveness, your character will perceive anything and anyone as a potential threat.
Over-analysing; they continuously think about events, past, present and future. Finding somethings in nothings, correlations without causes.
Depression; if your character feels there is truly no way out and a negative situation is inevitable, this may cause them to spiral.
When incorporating a change in personality into your novel, attempt to do so at a careful pace. Too quick a change, and you risk your character sounding like a different person from one page to the next. Too slow a change, and your reader may not even notice. Begin with small thoughts that eventually turn into actions; those blips in your character’s day can gradually build into more substantial problems that are noticed by others.
When your character’s mood inevitably dips, their relationships with others will most likely change, adding an extra challenge for your character to deal with and overcome.
On one side, their friends may abandon them to escape your character’s constant negativity or persistent arguments. On the other side, your character may isolate themselves out of paranoia. They may also dread travelling, which further keeps them from society.
It may be that your character becomes overprotective of certain people, and as a result becomes controlling and manipulative in order to have their way. They may tell themselves it’s for the good of others, but in truth they are chasing people away.
Make sure to consider your character’s behaviour, and allow their friends and family to respond accordingly.
And so I’ll leave those points with you. When writing worry, if you want it to be impactful and authentic, make sure to consider not just the emotion itself, but its impact on your characters, their life and those around them.