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Make Your Characters Suffer Without Losing Your Humanity

Guest post by Justin Ferguson

Allow me to say this up front: This post is about inflicting suffering on our characters specifically, I want to address a negative way we as writers often approach the subject.

As students of The One Year Adventure Novel curriculum (OYAN), we know that story is fueled by conflict, and that a story goal requires a price. Both of these reveal the need for suffering in our stories. If no one suffers from a conflict, it wasn’t really that big a deal; and if the goal costs nothing to achieve, it’s worth nothing. Suffering is necessary in fiction.

And this is where a lot of us get excited. I’ll be the first to admit there is something appealing about the idea of inflicting suffering. For me, I think the greatest draw is the power I have over my characters: It is for me to decide what fate befalls the people of my story, whether they live or die, whether they experience joy or misery. I am like one of the old pagan gods, and my creations are doomed to play out their existence according to my whims.

As a young writer, there was another reason this mindset appealed to me: I found that it appealed to others. There’s something about being in a group that begs conformity, and for many of us OYAN has become a community where we’ve found people we can relate to better than anyone else, people who understand us, who love our quirks and support our passions. So in a desire to be liked and respected by people we like and respect, we will often embrace views and behaviors without due consideration.

Over the years, I’ve grown more aware of this enjoyment of character suffering among writers. But let me be honest here: I believe this approach toward suffering in fiction is harmful, for us as writers and as people. Consider this post a challenge to think differently about this subject; and toward that end I would like to share three reasons my own mindset has shifted.

1. There’s a word for someone who takes pleasure in another’s pain: sadist. As writers, we toss this word around to describe ourselves when referring to the various afflictions we have forced on our characters. But when it comes down to it, I doubt any of us are really sadists. And honestly, we don’t want to be. We don’t act this way in real life—when someone we love is hurting, we don’t laugh at them. We don’t feel good about their pain. Such behavior would be wrong. Instead, we hurt with those who are hurting.

When it comes to our stories, however, we often think differently. But let’s be honest: we’re not really sadists, so why pretend to be? Sadism is evil, and we know it; and while I haven’t conducted any studies to prove this, I suspect that practicing sadism in our stories is unhealthy for us in the real world with our real relationships. For me, this is probably the most obvious reason that we as people should abandon this mindset toward suffering in fiction.

2. This leads me to the next reason. Again, when a loved one is hurting, we hurt with them. It is this empathy that’s so important in storytelling, because as Daniel Schwabauer—Mr. S., to many of us—continually explains, the goal of any story is to create emotion.

Often as young writers we interpret “emotion” to mean “negative emotion” and so we brainstorm a list of possible ways to make our characters suffer so as to elicit the most tears from our readers. The ability to manipulate someone’s emotions through our stories may be another reason we find this mindset attractive (and which can lead back to the issue of sadism).

It’s important to note that suffering in fiction is necessary. Mr. S says in the curriculum that many beginning writers shy away from this because it makes them uncomfortable and because they care about their characters. But what about those of us who have left that discomfort far behind? Do we genuinely care about the suffering of our characters?

In Lesson 13 of OYAN, Mr. S tells of a time when J.K. Rowling was asked what she would say to her protagonist if she ever had the chance to meet him. Her answer, “I’d tell him I’m sorry for all the things I’ve put him through,” reveals an understanding we can learn from. The key to empathizing with characters is to see them as real people. If, when a real person we love is hurting, we hurt with them, then if we see a character as a real person and genuinely care about them, we will feel their pain. We will also share their joy, their triumphs, their fear, their anxiety, their excitement, and all the rest of the wide range of emotions we have the ability to convey.

While we may be tempted to play the sadist and write whatever we think will cause a reader the most grief, if we are enjoying the pain we’re creating, then we’re not actually feeling it ourselves. And if we as the authors don’t hurt with our characters, then it’s very unlikely that any reader will hurt with them. If I, who know my hero better than anyone, don’t care about his suffering, why should you? Odds are you won’t, and this may be the most practical reason that we as storytellers should abandon this mindset.

3. There’s a third reason, which to me is more important than the first two, because it taught me how to see myself, the writer, in relation to my characters. At the beginning of this post I mentioned sometimes feeling like one of the old pagan gods. But I’m not a pagan; I’m a Christian, as are most OYANers. Therefore I would like to suggest that God Himself defines how we should relate to our stories.

Tolkien coined the term “sub-creator” to refer to our role as artists: God, the supreme Artist, created the Primary World; and we, inspired by this Primary World, create secondary worlds in likeness of the first. As Christian storytellers we know that God is the Great Author, writing the Story of Redemption in history, and we are His characters. All our stories are echoes of His. Moreover, as human beings we are made in the image of God, and as Christians (“little Christs”) we are called to be like Jesus, Himself God. So what, then, is God the Author’s mindset toward suffering in the Story He is telling with our lives?

I want to be careful here, because while there have been many theological discussions on this issue, in the end the reason for most of our suffering is a complete mystery (just look at Job). We know we can trust Him, but the vast majority of the time we can’t see what He’s doing (like our characters will rarely see the purpose we have for their story). What we do know is that, while God may have a purpose we can’t foresee, He doesn’t take pleasure in our pain. Far from it, He understands it because He’s experienced it Himself. And we’re even told that He bottles up our tears.

If God’s attitude toward our suffering is one of empathy (to such the extreme that He literally took it all on Himself), shouldn’t we likewise have the same attitude when interacting with our sub-creations? If God the Creator is this way toward His Primary World, then we as Christian sub-creators­ should abandon the old mindset toward our secondary worlds.

As Tolkien put it, “We make in the manner in which we’re made”—and so we write like the One whose name we bear.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree with Justin’s reasons for taking a different approach to suffering in fiction?

About Justin
Justin has been a student with The One Year Adventure Novel for several years and has been writing since he was a kid. He desires his stories to evoke wonder and longing in readers like his favorites do in him. He is a Texan living in Canada and is in the process of collecting as many mythologies as are available. He also enjoys attempting to play the ocarina from time to time.

This Post Has 16 Comments
  1. This is a really good post. I like the comparison to pagan gods- sometimes I think we do feel like that. I also really like the idea of shifting our focus to creating empathy rather than simply causing suffering.
    My favorite books are the ones that made me empathize with the characters. I agree that our stories will be better if we focus on creating characters that can generate that kind of empathy.

    1. Thanks!
      Yes, my favorite books are all stories where I empathized with the characters to the point where they felt like family to me.

  2. Wow, what an amazing post! I completely agree with you that writers too often seem to enjoy hurting their characters. And that always disturbed me. I don’t like causing them pain; I like emotional impact. But our goal should be to create emotional impact in more than just negative ways. Ultimately, I think the negative emotions exist to contrast the positive ones, to make the joy, love, etc. stand out like it should. So, thank you for this post, Justin! It’s definitely got me thinking. 🙂

    1. Thanks! I agree, one of the reasons negative emotions are necessary in stories (besides honesty; negative emotions exist in real life) is to make the positive emotions seem all the more beautiful in comparison.

  3. I have never thought of this before, but I really like this mindset. 🙂 This definitely gives me something to think about. Thank you for being willing to share this!

  4. So true! it’s definitely fun to feel like an old pagan god, but I think a book with misfortune after misfortune can be depressing and not that fun to read. We need emotions, negative and positive.

  5. I never realized some authors took pleasure in hurting their characters until I read this! I often went to the opposite extreme and ended up with some boring stories as a result. Mr. S and this article are good reminders of how to create emotion, and that it sometimes requires having to be like our Creator, as you skillfully pointed out, and allow pain to our heroes. How painful, but all the more joyful when we bring them to triumph after suffering.

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