Angst isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Everyone angsts from time to time – not characters, but real people. Certainly, we don’t call it that, but we stress out and worry and fret and grieve. It’s natural. In fiction and in roleplay, angst can be dramatic and character developing, without being irritating or over-the-top.
The problem comes from two main problems: either the character becomes pathetically whiny and never actually moves on from their past trauma when they really should have (or dwells on it for too long at inappropriate moments) thus becoming irritating or repetitive, or so many ‘traumatic’ events are showered upon the character to the point where it stops being dramatic and becomes, well, comical.
As I’ve said in the past, there are situations that arise in the game on a moderately regular basis that will cause ongoing trauma to people. That’s fine, and I’d consider it good roleplaying if reference is made to this fact. It becomes bad roleplaying – or, at least, a pet peeve of yours truly – if it’s constantly referenced and played up for ever and ever, or if the traumatic event was either too petty to cause this level of response, or so excessive that no one takes you seriously.
I think I should note here that, because of the kind of content I’m talking about, what follows may be somewhat controversial. I don’t intend to offend here, but I think it is only fair to note that I could be pushing the line unintentionally. I apologise if that’s the case.
Pet Peeve: Dead parents around every corner.
Why People Do It: Well, let’s be honest: a lot of people do it in World of Warcraft because people die all the time in World of Warcraft. It’s in a war zone, and people are going to die. Some, like the Forsaken and even the gnomes in the wake of Gnomeregan, are in a unique position of most people they know being dead and/or some way away. Among the others, between war and invasion, most of what they know is fighting and death, so there’s going to be a lot of dead parents in the mix. Why do people abuse this? Well, people know what grief and revenge are, and they understand them. People seeking revenge want to go out and kill people. In World of Warcraft, most characters are going out and killing people. What’s not to like, here?
Why It Bugs Me: To be honest, my big problem with this isn’t that the stereotype exists as what happens when this goes bad. Parents being out of the picture is common enough in the Warcraft universe, and most people play characters old enough that there’s a perfectly valid reason why there’s no parents around. But when it’s overused, or abused, when every second character’s parents were killed by barbarians and the characters have sworn to kill the persons responsible… well, it gets old. It gets tiresome and uninteresting, and old.
How Else It Could Be Done: As I said, it’s perfectly understandable that your parents aren’t in the picture. I don’t think any of my main alts have parents in the picture. The problem isn’t so much here, as how you play that. Personally, I’d recommend shying away from revenge plots, but if you must do that, tone it down a little more than the average person. Try to shoot for realistically troubled but at a more muted level. Background, rather than constant foreground.
Pet Peeve: Rape plots.
Why People Do It: Whether it’s in play or in background, a part of it seems to come from the desire to have an emotionally troubled character or a traumatic experience in what seems to be the ‘easy’ way. It’s a part of wanting to play the victim, literally.
Why It Bugs Me: Rape plots, at their absolute best, make me feel uncomfortable. For a start, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done well. I’m hesitant to put this in the ‘Wangst’ category, but there’s little other way to categorise this: not because I consider rape to be petty or comical, because I want to establish that I absolutely do not, but because people often seem to include this on the basis of wanting something to quickly and easily induce emotional trauma in a character. I don’t like this at all; I think it’s a far too emotional and traumatising in reality to throw into a fictional character like it’s a replacement for real character developement, because it just isn’t. It’s particularly jarring when you can look back on a character and remove all instances of rape without actually affecting the overall character arc. If you can do this, do us all a favour and just leave it out.
How Else It Could Be Done: My instinct is to say it can’t be done. I’m sure that’s not true, but I have to say it: unless you’re absolutely sure that you can play it realistically and well, don’t even try. Absolutely don’t ever fall back on this as a stand-in for character development, and don’t throw it in when it doesn’t even affect the character at all. There are a wealth of other ways to establish character without throwing around something like this lightly.
And yes, I know, it could be argued as hypocritical that I think it’s fine to throw around dead parents and not sexual assault. I don’t think it really is, given the corresponding situations, but I would emphasize extreme caution in the latter if only because I see it attempted so often and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it done well. I would consider that realism is always the watchword, and caution even more so: don’t throw in something as character development that others could find offensive.
Beyond these two, I don’t have any specific examples to list. My point in all this is: try to keep away from the wangst. Trauma isn’t a substitute for character development under any circumstances, whether the trauma is death or sexual assault or anything else.