Character Development

How to “Show” Your Protagonist Is Stressed

If you’ve done your job as a storyteller, your protagonist faces more and more conflict, more and more stress from page one to the end of the second act. How does this stress manifest itself? How can you show that your character is growing weaker and weaker, either physically or emotionally? 

By adding these hints of stress — and really you only need 3 or 4 of them through the course of the story — you are creating a more identifiable character for your readers. You want your readers to empathize with the pain your main character is going through. The more empathy, the more willing they are to follow the main character throughout the entire story.

How Do They Show Stress Physically? 

1. Your main character may exhibit cold symptoms. It’s no secret that when we are stressed our immune system suffers. So maybe they’ve got a scratchy throat and are tired, maybe even feverish. Finding relief and rest will just add to the conflicts that they are facing. 

2. They may exhibit allergic reactions. Sometimes people break out in rashes if they can’t handle what life throws at them. Or their eczema blows up and they are miserable from scratching and not getting enough rest. 

3. Their blood sugar levels may vary. Maybe they’re diabetic or maybe they just get really hangry. Either way, stress can affect sugar levels. Keep that Snickers bar just out of reach to make them suffer all the more (and gain reader empathy.) 

4. They may experience a noticeable weight gain or loss. Depending on the time period, and tracking instruments of your setting, your stressed out character may not be eating well and it will show up in their gaunt, thin frame, or maybe they’re bloated and swollen. 

5. Their blood pressure changes. Now this isn’t something that we can easily see, but a naturally hypertensive person, who is stressed out, could be close to having a stroke. Consider adding that to their suffering

“We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie.” 
― David Mamet, Boston Marriage

6. They may suffer from chest pain. A stressed out character, especially one who is older, has poor eating habits, and smokes three packs a day could have a heart attack or a coronary episode. This would add to the tension in a big way, if they are trying to solve the mystery from a hospital bed. 

7. A stressed out character has difficulty sleeping. But I would argue that you use this symptom of stress last. Pick something instead that is more interesting and not as likely to be expected. 

8. Sometimes stressed out characters have nausea or dizziness. Authors with female characters of use this as an indicator of pregnancy — it doesn’t have to be. If you use this, then consider that your reader may jump to the wrong conclusion. 

9. They may have gastrointestinal issues. GI problems are a true indicator of stress, without question. The question is, how –ahem — authentic do you want your story to be? (And pass the probiotics while you’re at it.) 

10. Stress may be revealed in their muscles and joints. If your main character is middle aged, they may find it harder to get around, especially first thing in the morning and after staying long in one position.

Stress can also be the cause of chronic fatigue, head pain, back pain and sleep issues.

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How Do They Show Stress Emotionally?

1. They ruminate. Stressed out characters may overthink worst case scenarios, can’t stop talking about the issues, or replay scenes over and over. They may ask tons of “what if” questions? Their general anxieties may snowball into more and more irrational fears to the point that their day-to-day life suffers.

2. They are moody and get irritated easily. A torn fingernail could be the end of the world for your main character because so much has happened to them already! Overreactions are a good way to “show” stress, as opposed to “telling” about it. (Friends telling them that they are overreacting is even better.) 

3. Your stressed out character is restless. They pick at this task or the other and can’t focus on any one thing because they are so busy ruminating on their stress.

4. Your stressed out character may be overwhelmed. They can’t make basic decisions, like what to make for dinner or which route to take to the crime scene. Their indecision is another great way to “show” and not “tell”.

5. Your stressed out character may withdraw socially. They might get lost in a book, in music, binge-watching television, video games or sleep. 

Other signs of stress:

1. Your stressed out character isn’t interested romance. At the beginning of the book you may have created a kind of player, but now when everything has fallen apart, your protagonist might not feel like flirting. They may have neglected their appearance, stopped going to their favorite pick-up spots, and ignored their texts.

2. Your stressed out character may practice some sort of self-harm. Now this can be dramatic, like cutting. Or it can even be subtle, like chewing the skin off their lips, or picking at their cuticles. 

3. Your stressed out character may have a tendency to slip into addictions like exercising too much. Conflict can arise when their addiction is a good behavior gone awry, like jogging or counting calories. Keep in mind that many times these “idols” are satisfying to a point, they will encourage relief and peace, until they stop working and have the reverse affect. 

4. Your stressed protagonist is forgetful. If your character has attention issues, this is really going to come out when they are stressed. They will be less organized, less productive and less sure of themselves.

“Ladies, stress shows on your face. Happiness is the true beauty weapon.” ― Susan Sarandon

5. Their short term memory suffers. When I am stressed, I often have trouble hearing and remembering information that my family has told me, even simple things, like, “when do you need to be at work?” And because I can’t remember easily, I find myself frustrated and angry. 

6.They may be indecisive. If you want to show that your character is stressed, then put them in a position to make a choice. Their emotional upheaval could make them second guess what they chose, or paralyze them into making a poor choice. 

7. They may focus on the negative. Often stressful people assume the worst and can’t get over ordinary flaws. It is really the end of the world that there was a fly in the soup, or the kid got a B on the test, or she had to slam on the brakes at that intersection. 

Many signs of stress feed off each other. They are all connected like a big web. It isn’t hard to show that your character is stressed and if you layer in these little markers of stress to your character as the story progresses and the conflicts get hotter, then you will be adding layers of conflict, gripping your reader, and raising the stakes. As these signs of stress progress in the book, they “show” the protagonist’s decline, not just tell.

And keep in mind: the ultimate goal of your story may not only be that the character gets what they want, it’s also that they feel better. The tension is gone and they are back to the version of themselves that they were in the beginning of the book. Your readers may be cheering them on. Don’t disappoint them.

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.