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A pair of Oxen were drawing a heavily loaded wagon along a miry country road. They had to use all their strength to pull the wagon, but they did not complain. The Wheels of the wagon were of a different sort. Though the task they had to do was very light compared with that of the Oxen, they creaked and groaned at every turn. The poor Oxen, pulling with all their might to draw the wagon through the deep mud, had their ears filled with the loud complaining of the Wheels. And this, you may well know, made their work so much the harder to endure. "Silence!" the Oxen cried at last, out of patience. "What have you Wheels to complain about so loudly? We are drawing all the weight, not you, and we are keeping still about it besides.
—The Oxen and the Wheels, Aesop's Fables
Let's face it, life is tough, and it's not made easier when you're a Chew Toy.
And when the going gets tough - and let's face it, since True Art Is Angsty, it will - even the tough can start to whine. Of course, depending on age, the whining will be different, but nonetheless they'll whine. In fiction, however, no matter how justified the character's complaints are there's a delicate balance between enough whining and too much, and unfortunately characters that should have a right to angst can lose the sympathy of the audience if the audience no longer wants to listen. Many situations in fiction do not happen in real life, therefore most audiences cannot truly sympathize with the character and can find him annoying. This phenomenon is known as Angst Dissonance.
There are a few theories as to why this occurs. Note that Angst Dissonance is a personal limit, and different people have different levels of tolerance for exactly how much they're willing to put up with; Furthermore, a lot of these depend as much on how the character is being read / written rather than any inherent issues in the text;. Nevertheless, some of the key contributing factors to Angst Dissonance include:
- You are listening to a stranger's problems. No matter how much of this character's life you've watched, a viewer still can't know the character personally, and it makes the whining that much more difficult to tolerate. This particular point can be alleviated if the character is written in such a way that the reader does feel that they know the character, but this can be difficult to achieve, and depends partly on the reader being able to make this connection in the first place. Characters whose tragic circumstances are introduced before we get to know them at all are especially prone to this.
- Whining is best done in groups. A great way to relate is to find something people mutually don't like and complain. It's hard (but not impossible) to do with a fictional character.
- In real life, a viewer doesn't have to listen to anybody's Inner Monologue except their own, where so much whining is done.
- It's all one way. In real life, if you're having a good moan with someone, the person you're with can be reasonably confident that they'll have a turn to get some moaning in when you stop speaking (of course, depending on who you are, this chance may be quite slim, but it is nonetheless there). With a fictional character, while they can bitch to their hearts content at you, psychologically you will never get a chance to moan back to them.
- If, in real life, a person can't stand somebody else's whining, they can try to shut them up or just walk away. A viewer can't exactly walk away from a show if they're still curious as to what's going to happen next.
- It's all fictional anyway. In real life, no matter how much they might be complaining, people are at least bitching about things that are actually happening, and that do have an effect, however minor, in their lives. But a fictional character's problems aren't real (although they may be based in reality), and since fiction is mostly make-believe, most people would rather read and enjoy stories about people actively engaging and dealing with their problems rather than just complaining about them (since if they wanted to have people complain at them without doing anything about it, they can get plenty of that in real life).
- Related to the above; as well as the character being fictional, the causes of their angst may be something that is entirely fictional to begin with, making it difficult for readers to full empathise with them; okay, being made immortal or turned into a vampire may indeed suck, but it's also something that no one outside of the fictional world is going to be able fully relate to or appreciate, making it difficult for them to fully sympathize with the character's predicament.
- As with real people, no matter how serious or genuine the complaint some fictional characters can just go way over the top with moaning about it. They may also just be moaning about nothing, or something that is actually pretty cool if they thought about it. The creators may also be trying WAY too hard to make things angsty for their characters, which can pull the audience right out of the story if it's just too obvious and contrived.
- Alternatively, the creator may insist on returning to a particular well of suffering for a character so many times that the audience becomes irritated and bored with seeing it dragged out well past what they feel is its sell-by date. Even if the angst is relatively well-portrayed and concerning something that would be genuinely difficult to overcome, eventually the audience is going to start insisting that the character and creator both get over it and move on to something new; the beauty of fiction is that, unlike in Real Life, the grieving process doesn't have to be dragged out over a lengthy period of time and can be dealt with in a compressed fashion.
- The character who is doing all the angsting may be juxtaposed against other characters who have just as many reasons to angst—if not more—than the character in question, but nonetheless compose themselves in a more restrained, dignified fashion and overall deal with it better. Contrary to what some creators think, making one of your characters more whiny than the others will not endear them more.
- No matter how justified they may be in doing so, characters who whine about being famous, beautiful and / or wealthy are unlikely to win the audience's sympathy very easily. There may be genuine drawbacks involved, but there are also lots of advantages to being beautiful, famous and wealthy that makes people who have these things whining about them particularly insufferable to people who don't.
- For the most part people who spend all or most their time complaining about things—whether real or fictional—just aren't very interesting or pleasant to spend time with.
- Even in real life, most people don't actually like hearing people complain, but they may listen anyway out of sympathy. With fiction, they expect to be entertained.
- The character is whining about something that happened to them after they were passed the Idiot Ball and got themselves in trouble through their own stupidity.
- The character is whining about something someone did to them, when that character has themselves done equally bad or worse things to other characters.
- In serialized fiction like a television or comic book series, it could seem strange if a character goes an entire episode/issue without mentioning the defining tragedy that drives their motivation or current plotline. But it can seem like they just never shut up about it if they do mention it in every single episode/issue. It's almost impossible to strike a balance between keeping a character's angst level consistent (and filling in new viewers/readers) and wallowing in the same old angst until someone who's seen every previous episode/issue never wants to hear about it again.
Essentially, as noted above, this trope largely exists due to a prevailing belief among some that True Art Is Angsty; that 'art' should only be concerned with exploring angst and pain and thus reflect the real world. Of course, most people engage with art and fiction at least in part to escape the problems of the real world in a fictional one where these problems can be resolved more easily and satisfactorily, and don't always like having them thrown back at them (especially if, as noted above, the creators are going way over the top with it). These creators also tend to ignore / forget / disdain the fact that life is also made up of uplifting, encouraging bits as well, which people like to be reminded of. This can cause problems to arise between the creators, who are attempting to make an artistic statement about their characters and the world they inhabit, and the readers, who simply find that artistic statement too depressing (or annoying).
Angst Dissonance can lead to creators going right into Wangst if the Dissonance goes way over the top, as no matter how genuine the complaint people will get turned off if the character's moaning goes too far, especially if all they're doing is complaining without attempting to effectively deal with the problem. If the creators try too hard to generate angst for the characters without accurately judging exactly how much angsty backstory the audience can reasonably tolerate, and don't take steps to pull back when they might be going too far, then Deus Angst Machina can be the result. Angst Dissonance can also be the result if the show's relying on a visit from Diabolus Ex Machina, which can damage the show's credibility and the audience's ability to suspend their disbelief. If the character's complaints stem from something that is actually pretty cool, then the character is Cursed with Awesome - and audiences hate it when characters complain about powers and abilities that they'd love to have.
Using a Cozy Voice for Catastrophes can mitigate Angst Dissonance, in that while the character in question is still hurting deeply, at least he's pleasantly chatty about it. Similarly, the Happy Flashback can show that characters weren't always angst-bags.