Angst and agony are sort of related, but also two very different things. They often remind me of the difference between romance and love. One is a passing feeling and one is an act. Angst is often self-focused, selfish, and fades unless perpetually fed. Agony is something horrible which happens to us. It can be empathized with by others even if they’re not in the situation, even if they’re only an observer. Angst is an emotion. Agony is an act. Twilight is angst. The Time Traveler’s Wife is agony. As much as I love it, the Breakfast Club is angst while 3000 Degrees is agony. Listening to your brother firefighter’s last transmission over the radio knowing it is his last is agony. Agony is Marcus Luttrell’s fellow SEAL, Dietz, shot and killed while Marcus held him. Then, having Murphy scream Marcus’ name, scream for help, when Marcus couldn’t reach him. Agony is looking Axe in the eye as he dies before a grenade blows him apart and flings Marcus off a cliff. That’s agony. Just like love, agony involves an act. Love involves generally gaining something we desire. Agony generally involves the pain of losing something we desire. (This can be used, just like love, to build believable protagonist and antagonists.)
Angst is a sappy, repetitive praise song pleading not for God, but for our emotions to increase. Agony is “it is well with my soul”. Angst is griping because of a mixed up Starbucks order, agony is having your church blown up by a suicide bomber. Angst is feeling misunderstood. Agony is dying on a roman cross. See one isn’t always true. Angst could be just your point of view and a far cry from reality. Agony, real agony, can’t be missed. You’ll know it when you feel it, experience it, hear of it.
I don’t like angsty things. They tend to annoy me. I do enjoy reading about agony. Agony reminds me to look beyond my relatively easy life and see what’s been sacrificed for me. Agony keeps me thankful, humble, and willing to serve. Agony, either my own, or read about, helps me think about others. It floods me with pity for both the seen and unseen pain of those around me. I have yet to see Angst do that in any way. Angst, from what I’ve seen, shuts people off. It closes them away, trapped by what they think is bad in their life until they can’t see beyond the end of their own nose and their own suffering. Angst makes those who dwell on it more selfish.
It’s not that angst is wrong. It’s no more wrong than romance. What’s wrong is over indulging in them, and making it more important than their far more significant counterparts: Agony and Love.
See, I don’t want Christ to experience angst for my sin any more than I want Him to have a passing romance for me. I want Christ to suffer agony for me, not because I’m a sadist, but because that’s the only way I’m going to be saved. I want Christ to love me, not as a feeling of warm fuzzies, but as an act, a choice.
It may seem like splitting hairs, but as writers it’s very important that we split those hairs and understand the difference. It doesn’t work if you don’t handle the difference between romance and love correctly. It doesn’t work if you mistake angst for agony. Say you have a character who is being belittled, not bullied, just belittled, and another who is tortured. Don’t equate those. Being belittled isn’t the same as being tortured. But, if you know the difference, then you can start having fun. You can have the person who has suffered physical torture overcome that through strength of character and you can have the belittle person cave under the pressure of what he has mistaken for agony. Only when you know the difference can you start having fun mixing things up.
This can also help you define the difference between heroes and villains. Villains are quite often those who don’t handle agony, angst, love, or romance well. They mistake them, mix them up, give them more weight than they deserve. They never overcome the hurdles thrown at them. Loki has this bit of angst mixed in with him while Thor is more agony based. Loki is the bad-guy and Thor is the good-guy. Loki complains about his adoption, while Thor learns from his mistakes to control his power. In Labyrinth and Legend, the heroines are both wrapped up in angst which leads them to experience some real agony and helps them become the great characters we all love. That’s good storytelling. You can have someone start with love and add in romance. That makes for really powerful stories. Arrange a marriage that turns into true romance. Or maybe have a husband/wife duo that rediscover their romance due to circumstances which have to be faced together. You can have a character suffer agony and then spiral into angst only to suffer a greater agony which pulls them out of the angst and sets them on a path to help others.
So much can be done when you see the difference between agony and angst. It keeps you from giving incorrect weight to one or the other. It keeps you from encouraging something which is totally unhealthy—read between the lines here and interject 90% of YA fiction. It gives you more tools in your tool belt for storytelling. It may keep you from writing the next fad, but it will help you write something which will resonate with audiences far longer. Lord of the Rings sold second only to the Bible in the 20th century. If the book had been angst and romance instead of agony and love, do you think it would have echoed through the masses, crossing cultural and linguistical lines? Do you think we, the elect, would be saved if Christ just felt really bad about our sin, kinda stressed out, and really really liked us? Nope. It took death on a cross. It took bearing the wrath of God. It took real agony driven by real love to save sinners.
Agony and angst are different. This is a good thing.
Can you think of other similar, closely aligned concepts often mistaken for one another? Comment below with your thoughts!