Alright so I am new here so I'm not sure if it's okay to ask this type of question, but I am wondering if it is possible for characters to get stuck in a sort of 'rut' where they react to things with the same basic physical and emotional reactions.

For example, my main character is a twenty something male with anxiety, and every time something doesn't go his way he gets panicky, sweaty, his heart starts racing, he feels nauseous, and his mind begins to spin out endless worst -case scenarios. This makes sense coming from his character, but it is boring to read this sort of a reaction over and over and over again in my writing, whenever someone does or says something to freak out my MC.

So TLDR; is there any way to spice up character's reactions without straying from the character profile based reactions that make sense for them?

Thanks for reading and responding if you do.

  • 1
    Welcome to the site, Kay! Your question is perfectly on topic. A good rule of thumb is to make sure your question can help someone else, and isn't exclusively about your own writing. Nov 21, 2015 at 23:53

4 Answers 4


If the _story has movement_ and the _character is somehow forced to change_ within the story, then reading about the character responding the same way can be okay.

Magic Number: Three Times

However, since you the author know it could be boring, then to a reader it will probably be extremely boring. But, there's even way out of that.

Make sure you limit the number of times that you show the character go through these panic attacks to (at most) three.

Spice : Possibly Humor

It is also possible to make these scenes quite good if you cause the character to suffer hyperbolically as he trips over himself, crashes into doors and slips and slides as he attempts to get out of these situations.

Change: The Ultimate Point

Finally, as long as the character is finally forced to change, most readers will get into seeing your character transform. Seeing a character transform from a bumbling fearing wimp into some who is truly courageous (taking action even when they are panicking) can be a great story.

However, if you plan on keeping your milk-toast character the same throughout, I doubt she is a main character.

Good luck.

  • If the character has the symptoms of anxiety, as it seems they do, I would sincerely discourage you from portraying these symptoms as comic relief. If your character is a bumbling, clumsy "always in a tizzy" kind of caricature, then fine. That's not anxiety, and you shouldn't portray it as such. If you're character HAS anxiety - a mental illness - there's really nothing funny about that. Unless perhaps it's by the characters own dark observations.
    – sudowoodo
    May 7, 2017 at 14:01

Saberwriter makes good points, so I'll address another way to address your concerns.

Your character has anxiety, but there can be a lot of variety in that. At any one moment it could be a general feeling of unease, twinge of fear, distracting panic, or mind-numbing inability to focus on anything else.

If you vary the reactions, their levels, and most importantly the words you use, it will address your concerns.

The Emotion Thesaurus (good book) lists a lot of reactions. Some are:

  • touching the face
  • shaking of various limbs
  • twiddling thumbs, watch, rings, etc
  • swallowing and shifting feeling hot or cold dizziness
  • nauseated
  • tingling in limbs
  • chest tightening
  • difficulty breathing
  • worrying about worst-case scenarios
  • heart palpitations
  • hyperventilating

Many of the above can be found in medical descriptions of panic disorders.

As long as the reactions you focus on shift each time you're fine. It helps if you focus showing the physical rather than mental response (which will always be fear). Dizziness and breathing one time, heart racing and sweating the next, nausea and him noticing his limbs shaking another.

Once you've varied the reactions focused on, you can then vary the exact way to present the symptoms you choose. A quick search will turn up a lot of ways to describe the feeling of being nauseated (bad taste in mouth, stomach cramping, saliva in mouth, rapid swallowing, sensitivity to smell, etc).

Then you can put some "pretty" spins on it by varying phrasing. Similes and metaphors will help a ton here - they are usually more "literary" than adjectives. He can feel the acid churning in his stomach, his gut was filled with lava, his insides turned to liquid doubt, his anxiety turned the burrito he had eaten for lunch into molten lead, he had to swallow to not retch all over the table. Fun stuff.

  • I'm wondering if it is possible to use every single example you put at once. "Bob sat and waited in the sterile waiting room and stared nervously at his watch; observing every single nerve racking moment ticking by while endlessly spinning about what was going on in the next room. He thought about every worst case scenario that could come to mind; "Is she going to die?", "Will she be wheelchair bound?", "What if..." He shifted his weight on the bench and began to involuntarily rock back and forth. Bob began to feel nauseous. He has been there for hours and had not eaten anything all day..." Nov 27, 2015 at 15:53

Ok (I'm trying hard to ignore "Alright" rather than "All right," but it's giving me a panic attack, so I just have to say something; please forgive me), you're describing panic attacks, which have a definitive set of signs and symptoms. You may benefit by reviewing those in the DSM-III and beyond (up to V now). You can use different symptom subsets to each attack to decrease redundancy.

Interaction with a therapist or psychiatrist may add a depth to your character and can be humorous in and of itself. It can also give you a platform regarding what interventions may be helpful in your character and express what kind of insight your character has to his discomfort. A medication trial might even be successful but create its own problems so that the character chooses his neurosis. In his 20s, especially, Zoloft might decrease his anxiety but make erection or orgasm impossible. You can take it from there!


One big thing you can do is change the circumstances as much as possible whenever he's having one of these events. When you're in the middle of a panic attack you become incredibly reactive to everything. So give him a variety of things to react to.

For example, pair him with different characters and let their reactions be the variable. If it's a common thing, maybe there's a family member who is so experienced with it that they can anticipate what he needs and help bring him down.

Put him with another high strung person and they can play off each other's panic.

Maybe he has an attack near someone who isn't taking it seriously and even screwing with him a little.

Maybe he's with a heavily medicated person and suddenly they give him a handful of tranquilizers to take.

Here's one from personal experience. He's having a panic attack but before he can excuse himself for a breath of air a birthday cake is wheeled out along with a bunch of waiters. Now he's panicking to the tune of happy birthday but doesn't want to show it and is just trying to hold it together while he waits for a five year old to think of her wish so she'll blow out her damn candles and the wait staff will go back to the kitchen and get out of his way.

I don't know your story so I'm not sure what will and won't work but something needs to change to keep it from feeling stagnant. Just play around with things and I'm sure you'll figure it out.

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