In German and Dutch, angst means fear or anxiety. In English, angst has come to mean emotional strife. It is most keenly associated with teenagers (teenage angst). But angst itself is a powerful motivator in fiction whether we are talking about teenagers, adults, fantasy or romance.
For a writer, angst is the obstacle to be overcome in their hero or heroine’s journey. For the reader, angst generates empathy and sympathy. You want the characters you are rooting for to overcome their angst whether it is coming from an internal or external source.
In the Buffy episode Lover’s Walk, all the characters are confronted with their romantic and relationship angst. Boundaries are shifted and truths are faced. Spike acts as an external catalyst (to fantastic effect):
Buffy and Angel are still completely in love with each other and inching closer and closer to being reunited despite their protests to just being friends. They are on a collision course to releasing Angelus once more. Spike is not gentle about pointing it out: they love each other so much it hurts, they’ll love and they’ll shag and then they’ll bleed.
Xander and Willow are still engaging in their behind their backs kissing sessions. Neither is sure why they can’t stop and neither is willing to fess up to their significant others. It seems clear that they love their partners, but they want it all. When Spike snags them, they give into their passion (albeit briefly) and are caught lip to lip by Cordy and Oz.
Adding insult to injury, Cordelia is badly injured. The physical metal rebar going through her abdomen is a powerful metaphor for the stake Xander has driven through her heart. Despite all her faults, Cordy really was in love with Xander and he broke her heart.
Meanwhile Giles is still struggling to reconcile his feelings about Buffy and Angel seeing each other again after Angelus’ torture of him and the murder of Jenny.
As for Spike, the catalyst? He’s stinking drunk and desperate to get Drusilla back after she dumped him. At the end of the episode, he realizes that he’s going about it all the wrong way; he just needs to kidnap and torture her until she takes him back. Twisted, but then he is a demon!
Collectively all of these moments are very powerful. They are all love’s bitch. Love tears you up inside, it empowers you; it’s a passion that can consume, destroy, build up and so much more. Love is a driving organic force in storytelling that cannot be discounted.
In Legend of the Seeker Richard cipher is in love with Kaylan, his Confessor. She loves him. Yet their love must forever remain chaste, because if they were to consummate their passion physically, her power would Confess him. For those that don’t follow the series, that means Kaylan would make Richard her slave whether she wanted to or not and the essence of who he is would be gone forever.
Harry Potter mourns his murdered parents and seeks to understand his past. That, combined with Voldemort’s negative influence all contribute to Harry’s social isolation. That social isolation is enough for angst all by itself, but Harry’s heroic journey is filled to the brim with angst for the character to wade through.
Another Harry, Harry Dresden, faces the Doom of Damocles when we first meet him in Jim Butcher’s Storm Front. The Doom is a result of his killing with magic, albeit in self-defense. In other words, even one screw up on his part can have the White Council ready to take off his head.
Angst drives all of these stories. From Sam and Dean’s loss of their mother, Jessica, their father and more on Supernatural to the anxiety of Sookie’s mind-reading on True Blood. Angst is an organic part of a character’s life, it drives them, it evolves with them and it makes for a great tale.
Even the greatest comedies have their elements of angst. Despite the bad rap that angst is given, we couldn’t have great stories without great angst. What do you think?