Monday, January 13, 2014

What, Me, Worry?

Sacchi Green

I don’t say that I had no worries way back in the long-gone days when Mad Magazine was in its heyday and Alfred E. Neuman’s goofy, worry-free face under the What, Me, Worry? motto was possibly the most recognizable one in the world. I was an adolescent then, and adolescents are mired in worry like flies in molasses. But there was always some faint hope that when you grew up you’d gain control over your life, and worries would be behind you.

Fat chance. I think there were brief periods in my adult life when I thought things were finally on an even keel, but of course those times don’t last, and “finally” doesn’t apply to anything except the sort of finality you’d rather not think about when you get to be my age.

So yes, I worry, mostly just in those nagging half-waking hours of early morning that most of us have talked about. Sometimes, when it turns out that I was closer to real sleep than I thought I was, I even worry about imaginary problems that turn out to have no connection to reality when I wake up. What a relief!

On the whole, though, I’m lucky. I’m lucky to have family to worry about, even though I realized when my granddaughter was born that the more loved ones you have, the more hostages fate holds (not that I believe in fate, except as a useful metaphor.) I’m lucky to be comfortably retired with the quasi-career of writing to exercise my mind and provide goals to strive for, even if I worry justifiably that I began too late (even though it was always what I wanted most to do) and don’t have what it takes for the promotion all writers have to manage these days. In spite of my luck, I have worries, but they’re not interesting to anyone but myself, and not entertaining even to me.

So let’s discuss worry in a completely different context. We’re all writers and readers here; we’ve all heard that for genuine, complex, fully developed stories, the characters must have some goal that’s difficult to achieve, setbacks to overcome, threats to their happiness or survival. (I’m not endorsing this supposed rule, just mentioning it.)  Protagonists who are supremely confident, or achieve their goals with no problems and no self-doubt, are hard to make believably human. Even superheroes face obstacles, I assume, although I’m largely ignorant of that genre. For romance books, and to some extent erotica books, it sometimes seems like writers tie themselves into knots dreaming up obstacles to be overcome before their characters can find everlasting love or that ultimate, supreme orgasm. Without something to worry about, where’s the story?

Okay, I may be cheating by equating facing obstacles with worrying. Some people worry when there aren’t any immediate obstacles, just so they won’t be taken by surprise if and when some do turn up. My mother was a pro at that. The there’s that subsidiary definition of worry: “To seize with the teeth and shake or tug at repeatedly: a dog worrying a bone.” ( Those are both types of compulsion, but, while a writer is unlikely to model a lead character after my mother’s version, the dog/bone metaphor might work for a private detective character refusing to give up trying to solve a crime.

I’m worrying now that I’m getting nowhere with this line of what I’ll go out on a limb and call thought. But I’ve sometimes wondered whether we see fictional characters as weak if they worry too much, or at least too obviously. If obsessing over what course to take is a form of worrying, we have Hamlet to consider, an undertaking that has obsessed thousands of literary analysts over the centuries, with still no definitive conclusion. How do we feel about our own characters? Do we throw them into briar patches of difficulties to see how well they can handle them, or to watch them squirm and, well, worry? Or all of the above?

On second thought, maybe I should just have written about my own personal worries after all. Such as whether I could have done a better job raising my kids. Maybe I shouldn’t have let them read Mad Magazine? Come to think of it, though, the older one read it but the younger one didn’t, and the older one is by far the better adjusted, while still being charmingly eccentric. I guess there are things we’ll just never know, no matter how much we worry about (or at) them.      


  1. This is really interesting, Sacchi, thanks. I do always try to give my characters clear conflicts, but I don't think I've ever written a real worrier, which is funny because that's the experience I know. I guess I do worry that making a character a worrier would make them seem weak or the dreaded "unlikeable." (haha and I just unconsciously used the word worry for myself, which I'll leave in despite the repetition because it seems telling)

  2. i think it's much more interesting to talk about craft than personal bio ;) i'm glad you raised the issue of characters & their worries. i find i am less interested in creating characters who worry than i am about creating flawed characters who should worry more. rather than set up obstacles they must tackle, i'd rather develop the character,warts and all & then see what happens. i think this might be the difference between character vs plot based fiction. or at least i'm musing about that ;) not worrying! i do like the secondary seize & shake definition you mentioned. in that sense of the word, i am a worrier when it comes to writing. ...

  3. Seems to me that being a "worry-wart" would be a fine character trait to explore. I definitely don't think such a character would be viewed as weak. Many people worry as a way to feel that they have some control over their lives.

    I've written characters who worried, though not obsessively. One who comes to mind is Ruby Jones in "Wild About That Thing". She has internalized her mother's nagging, and engages in a daily battle to liberate herself from that critical voice.

    Maybe this would make a worthwhile writing exercise.

  4. Although my characters may often be concerned they'll pay for their indiscretions, they don't often worry in those terms. They're usually confident folk busy getting themselves out of whatever trouble they're in. It's one more interesting character trait to explore for our readers involvement. After all, it's something we all relate to, to some degree.

  5. Hi Sacchi!

    Alfred E Neumann is a part of every baby boomers youth. Haven;t read it for awhile. When I read what you have here i'm struck by how personal worry is. Our worries are all our own. Definitely let your kids read Mad, especially the early issues. I still read them.


    1. Garce, by now it's more question of letting my granddaughter read Mad Magazine, and that's up to her father (who has quite a stash still at my house in his old room.) She wouldn't have the context for the satire of that period, though, so she'd be bored.

  6. Ah, Mad magazine! Discovered some under my uncle's chair when I was only about 10 and feverishly read them before we went home. He found out and true to his sense of humor, he gave my younger brother and me a subscription when I turned 13. I kept them coming all through high school, college, and in the early days, would often renew my subscription before I bought food. Hey, laughing makes your stomach feel better too, right? My magazines lapsed because they don't offer Mad anymore on the service the middle school kids are always hawking around in the neighborhood. I asked for a subscription for Christmas and one of my sons gave me a two-year one, due to start any day now...I can't wait! They skewer the pompous and self-absorbed in every media better than anyone else!

    As for worrying you didn't raise your kids right...yeah, I can really relate. Especially when they're all home and they gang up on me, reminding me of some quirky, crazy thing I did when they were young, that I figured they'd never remember. But all of the educational places I took them, all of the events we went to? Don't remember any of that! Sigh...

    I do like crawling around in my characters' heads while they worry. I don't like first-person because it's too limiting. I want to be in everyone's head as they agonize over whether or not their feelings are reciprocated, and if they are moving too fast or too slow....


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