Ahhh… angst. You are my only friend. Except when I see you with that other guy, the one with the looks and the money and the talent. Shit, why can’t I be like him? Oh my God, I can’t believe how miserable I am.
Okay, enough of that. So I’ve been chastised pretty frequently about using angst as a criterion for judging shows. And it’s a fair complaint. Much like pretentious or overrated, angst is one of those buzzwords that float around anime circles until it takes on a life of its own. Now my friends at Merriam and Webster define angst as, “a feeling of anxiety, apprehension, or insecurity.” That seems like a fair definition, so what’s wrong with that huh? I mean anxiety, apprehension and insecurity are all parts of what builds tension in drama.
And they’re also hallmarks of character growth. A character that is ALWAYS sure of themselves, and never doubts their place in the world is unlikely to ever do anything different. So without some angst, it’s unlikely that a character would change. And to top it off, even if the character did change, without at least a small period of angst, the change isn’t really going to be believable. So angst is necessary, right? To top all of that off, those three emotions can be a motivating factor for characters to do some pretty lousy stuff. They can cause them to lash out at friends. They can cause the characters to whine and cry and gnash their teeth.
The important word to note here is “some” angst. Because yes, there is such a thing as excessive angst. And this is where my first problem with angst starts. The thing is that angst by its very definition is an internal emotion. It pulls the viewer (and/or reader) into the character’s mind and away from the external going ons. And instead of leading to actual action on the part of the characters, it more often than not simply paralyzes the characters. In the worst cases of this, the character stops actually driving the plot and the plot starts happening to the character. Now short bouts of this can be okay. It can show weakness in an otherwise strong character. For any real length of time, it starts to get tiresome. Part of being the protagonist of any story is that they have to DO stuff.
But this leads to an even more crippling side effect. When the hero stops doing stuff, he distances himself from the audience. Now that’s not to say every character has to be likable. But even unlikable characters can be interesting if they’re doing interesting things. But once a character gets caught in the angst trap, they’re lost in a cycle of insecurity and fear. Personally as a viewer of fiction, I want the hero and heroine to be heroic.
Which leads to my main problem with excessive angst – it’s anti-plot. Essentially, it’s used as an excuse to stop the forward momentum of the plot and character development. While a little bit might push the character forward, too much stops the character’s growth all together. It drags out arcs that should only last one or two episodes and makes them into full blown seasons. It turns scenes that should be heart-wrenching, into long drawn out yawn fests. Essentially excessive angst is lazy storytelling.
And that’s my problem with it.