Writing Anxiety in YA

With Empathy Comes Heroism by Kristy Acevedo

When I decided to make the main character in Consider, seventeen-year-old Alexandra Lucas, struggle with a major anxiety disorder and become the hero of the series, I did not make that decision lightly.  I have several immediate family members with various anxiety disorders, from mild to severe, and I wanted to send a clear message that despite their struggles, I see them as strong.

However, I knew because of her anxiety disorder, Alexandra would never fit the mold of the current masculine examples of heroes in Blockbuster films. They barely show emotion after huge battles, no PTSD, no regret, remorse, or worry that they inadvertently killed tons of bystanders while fighting in the center of populated cities.  They also reinforce the harmful stereotype that male heroes don’t show feelings, even under traumatic circumstances. To write Alexandra’s character, I had to remind myself how we define heroes in everyday life.

The mark of a hero is not found through physical strength, magical powers, or weaponry; the mark of a true hero lies in making the hardest sacrifice in the worst of circumstances because it’s the right thing to do. True heroes have deep empathy for strangers.  And they act on it when it matters, not necessarily with violence.

Heroes give a shit. For anyone.

While we all have empathy for others, heroes demonstrate acts of selflessness which push our comfort levels. Would we be capable of doing the same? We’d like to think so, but we’ll never be sure unless we are faced with that moment. When we witness true heroism through fiction, we place ourselves in the hero’s shoes and feel the weight of selflessness. It makes us better people.

We don’t admire Superman because he’s strong. We admire him because he will save anyone even though he’s an outsider. We don’t admire Dumbledore because he’s a great wizard.  We admire him because he’s willing to sacrifice his reputation, career, and life for the sake of children. We don’t admire Katniss because she can shoot bow and arrows. We admire her because she takes the spot of her sister, Prim, in the games.

Being a hero is not about masks, costumes, and fire power, but about compassion. This is how we empower female heroes in our stories.  Scratch that – this is how we should be empowering all heroes in our stories. This is what we should be teaching children.

Yes, there are plenty of exceptions to this rule – many anti-heroes and vigilantes out there – but I would argue that they are not truly heroic until they meet this criteria. I’m also not arguing that heroes are infallible or perfect; they are relatable, flawed humans with complex personalities, who still rise to the occasion when the time comes.

In Consider, when the world begins to unravel, Alexandra is an unlikely teen hero because her anxiety gets worse, not better.  Anxiety is compassion and empathy on overload. It’s the stress of worrying about everything and feeling the emotional and physical pain of it all at once. It’s what makes her weak. It’s what gives her heart. With suffering comes empathy.  With empathy comes heroism.

And it’s what can save the world.

(This blog post originally appeared on YA Interrobang. It can be found here: http://www.yainterrobang.com/anxiety-in-sff-starshipladies/ )



Professional writer, mother, CDL Driver, and general Cape Cod nut.

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