Make your characters anxious with some ANTs (thoughts on playwriting craft #5)

Writing isn’t therapy, but it can be therapeutic. When writing drama, though, if the therapeutic bug takes hold you can end up with a draft in which your characters live a bit too happily.

If you have ever tried some cognitive behaviour therapy to help sort yourself out, you might recognise things called ANTs, Automatic Negative Thoughts, that are best to avoid. Anxiety, depression and burnout aren’t fun or productive, despite what the stereotypes of writers say.

However, these bad thinking habits can be great for characters.

In fact, if your story so far seems a little cheery or flat, giving at least one of your characters one of these types of thoughts as a habit can give your dramatic writing the push it needs.

What the site I’ve linked to lists as “the big four” are perfect for both comedies and tragedies:

  • All or nothing thinking
  • Focusing on the Negatives
  • Negative Self-Labelling
  • Catastrophising

What great farce or tragedy doesn’t employ characters who think this way?

And the others are great for characterisation, too:

  • Excessive Need for Approval
  • Mind Reading
  • Should statements
  • Dwelling on the Past
  • Disqualifying the Present
  • Fortune-Telling
  • Pessimism

Your characters might become happy by the end, but if they are simply “sort of” challenged by the events they perceive as adversity, then people will only “sort of” but a ticket, or “sort of” read it in the comfort of the literary department office.

Characters on stage have only a very limited amount of time on this earth – usually anywhere from 10 to 100 minutes a night. Their stakes are higher. Their problems more existentially threatening. The specifics, in terms of who or what threatens them or ignites their clouded thinking, is up to you.

We are drawn to characters who display these otherwise unhealthy thoughts.

We identify with the way they think. Because we often do think the same way ourselves.

But, in writing, the writer can take the high road.

Let your characters struggle down low and stay sane yourself.

Plus, it’s kind of fun to think of it as putting ANTs in your characters’ pants.


Credit: Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash