Writing with Teen Angst

Anonymous asked: “How do I make a main character’s death sad, but not too angsty?”

I don’t really associate character death with angst. With a teen protagonist, angst will be there, but it’s more likely to bring out the extremes of existing emotions.  

I get a lot of questions about writing angsty characters and sometimes I think people forget with angst means. There’s no shame. When words get thrown around a lot they take on different meanings. Angst is a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general. Often we hear about teen angst which is often associated with muddled feelings of anxiety about the way others perceive you. You’re worried about what your friends think of you, what your teenaged crush thinks of you, what strangers at the mall think when they see you. 

Beyond that, it’s kind of tied into how teens experience the world. Emotions are heightened. You might feel like the world is ending every other week. Your friends and your family are your life and not only are you astutely aware of every little change in everything around you, but you experience a lot of new firsts. It’s not universal across the board, but most teens become aware and even interested in mature topics such as death, romance, sex, politics, and religion. Then throw hormones into the mix. 

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger is probably the gold star text on teen angst. Holden Caulfield feels it’s him against the world, while bearing the weight of conflicting feelings around innocence, grief, anxiety, and a messy, philosophical view of the world. The important thing to note is that there is no separating the teen angst from the real feelings of grief and loss and that’s not a bad thing. It may at times make everything seem a little melodramatic, but when you’re that age, your life is melodramatic. A sudden break up is not just another breakup. It can feel like the world is over. 

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