There I was, sitting at the end of a bar waiting to fight for the attention of the bartender. The bartender walks past me, I meet his eyes and instead of nodding my head to indicate I wanted to order a drink, I immediately darted my eyes to the stained and sticky bar top and then slowly inched my way out of the bar and into the humid Atlanta night air. Why would I do this? I’ve had to deal with social anxiety my whole life, and while its influence has weakened, there are moments such as these where it suddenly takes over.
Just as my anxiety of having to speak with a stranger to place an order for Maker’s Mark and Sprite (it’s delicious, mind you) altered my choices and led me to actually leave the bar and my friends, anxieties must play a role in character choices.
Identifying the role of anxiety in specific scenarios provides a backbone for actions and dialogue that otherwise may seem strange or off. Although anxiety typically doesn’t rule every choice and word a character experiences, when appropriate, incorporating anxieties into why a character does a specific action enhances the realism and empathy exchanged from viewer to character.
Influence from Anxiety
If you were to truly analyze even your own interactions with professional and personal acquaintances, then you’d likely be surprised how heavy anxiety weighs on your choices. Perhaps you didn’t speak up when you should because of social anxiety or maybe you got into a car accident because traffic made you so anxious you made a driving mistake.
The influence of anxiety on character choices is directly related to three primary elements:
I. The Situation – Physical and emotional environment intimately navigate anxieties. For example, the moment before I approached the bar I was fine (anxiety level was at zero). Suddenly, I was triggered by laughing strangers and patrons who were willing to be much more vocal about their need for a drink. However, I’ve never had a problem ordering french fries or a milkshake. Therefore, my reaction/choices were directly influenced by situational anxiety.
II. Current Emotional State – There are times when emotional stability or geography alter reactions and choices. The extent a character goes through to satisfy their anxieties (because anxiety is always present, just sometimes it’s quiet) is typically based in their current emotional landscape. Again, this element is highly individualized and reveals itself according to personality elements, subject matter and emotions.
III. Weight of Objectives – The importance of a current objective or goal (may also be referred to as a want or desire) directly plays into the role anxiety has in shaping choices/actions. Could it be that the objective your character strives for is the actual root of their anxiety? Does the objective trigger ancient anxieties that are typically controlled or even forgotten about?