At the time, I didn't know how to approach it. After all, if you read my story Chuck vs the Simple Twist of Fate, you know that it's a pretty angsty story. How do I dissect something in an objective manner when I so obviously gravitate towards it in a subjective way? Then, some time last week, a few posts popped up on the Chuck fanfiction forums. I'm not going to name names, but you'll be able to pick up on them anyway, so let me preface this by saying that, while I'm disagreeing with the assertions made, do not mistake my disagreement for personal attack.
So, without further adieu, follow the break for an examination of why we write angst.
Before I get into the actual mechanics of why, I need to backup to those blog posts. They're important vehicles for examining the pitfalls of angst. The most telling quote that I found in the whole conversation said exactly this: "Hurting your characters is fun, and provides interest as a reader and a writer. Who wants to see people be happy?"
The sentence struck me as odd. Let's look at the obvious first. The last sentence "Who wants to see people be happy?" is interesting, especially when you examine it against fluff. As we talked about last time, seeing people be happy is precisely the reason for the existence of fluff. And, while fluff runs directly opposite to normal storytelling, that doesn't make it inherently bad, just necessarily more difficult to pull off artistically. That being said, fluff is really, really popular across all fandoms. The question seems silly then. A lot of us want to see people happy. It's, to borrow a phrase, why we write fluff.
It's the first part of the sentence that gets to the core of why we, on the other hand, write angst. "Hurting your characters is fun, and provides interest as a reader and a writer."
Here's my problem with this idea: It's flat out untrue, across the board. Hurting your characters can be necessary for a story-- I'm going to go ahead and point to many of the stories of Castle Inanity authors as examples-- but that doesn't automatically make it fun or interesting. It's the story of how and why these characters are being hurt, and also the story of how and why they're being healed, that does those things.
In a way, fluff has by Newtonian physics created angst. In writing stories in which the sole purpose is to make everything be okay forever, there has been created a subsection of stories in which the sole purpose is to make everything be not okay forever. Somewhere along the line, we've come under the impression that things not being okay is more valid than things being okay.
The simplest expression of why we write angst is that we are, ourselves, depressed. Writing angst-- in other words, foregoing resolution to instead focus on the terrible aspects of humanity-- is a way to come to grips with the angst in our own lives. That was the first idea that I had when I thought about why we write angst. But the other reason, and maybe stranger, why we write angst, is that we've been led to believe that sadness is a more worthwhile emotion than happiness. This delusion has formed that negativity is more enduring than positivity or, if not more enduring, than more worth exploring.
What we all too often miss when writing angst is that stories are not at their best when they fall to one extreme (fluff) or the other (angst). The best stories balance the two, juggling them intimately. As readers, we don't crave bad things to happen in and of themselves, we crave a push and pull between conflict and resolution. We like our most serious moments to hide some levity, and our most lighthearted moments to imply something more severe.
I like using examples from my own writings here, because I have the ability to accurately describe exactly what I was thinking when I wrote a passage, and how it applies to why we write this certain topic. For this one, I'm gonna pull out a passage from Chuck vs the Simple Twist of Fate, Chapter 8.
Chapter 8 was the first chapter where I started writing highly stylized prose (oooh, a call back to Why We Write #1). One of the very first paragraphs read as follows:
"The rest of his team had been taken out. Chuck had avoided a similar fate by adhering equally to both the principles he had established playing dart guns with Bryce in the Stanford library and the rules he had created playing Halo with Morgan: don't stick your neck out. Play the angles. Fools rush in. Never get involved in a land war in Asia."
It's not an especially angsty line, granted, but it illustrates the balance I'm talking about. In discussing a very serious training exercise, I included both a call back to video games with Morgan, and a reference to the Princess Bride. I didn't break tone in either of them, which maintained the serious spirit of the chapter, but the their existence alone was at the very least smirk-worthy. It injected something into the reading that, without sacrificing tension, allowed a moment of respite from the soul-crushing of Twist's Part II.
If we write fluff to satisfy a sweet tooth, then we write angst because we're convinced even a little bit of candy is going to cause multiple root canals. But, truthfully, it's a healthy balance that we need to strike between the two that's going to lead to the best outcome. Writing angst is no more or less valid than writing fluff, but the darkness inherent in angst declares itself falsely superior. But, seriously, if I've learned anything from Disney/Pixar movies, it's that an adorable love story can be just as artistically important as a Shakespearean tragedy.
You know, I think Leonardo DiCaprio's character in Inception said it best:
"I think positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time."
And who are we to argue with the guy from Titanic?