Putting them through hell

I recently read a very interesting post by Mara over at Writing Blues, in which she expresses her distress at having to ‘torture’ her main protagonist, as that’s “what you need to do: be mean to your MC (main character)”. I found this quite fascinating, and have been pondering this issue.

Obviously enough, something has to happen, otherwise there is no story, and I’ve heard that the secret to writing a great book is to have your character face personal challenges, and overcome them. Apparently people want to see some sort of personal development – to see how events change the character.

I suspect that people also like to read about pain in a nice safe environment, where they are free of it. I heard PD James, that fantastic crime author, express the view that murder mysteries are more popular during times of hardship (like during and immediately post-war), because although someone gets killed, justice is served in the end. The same cannot always be said of real life.

But is it really necessary to make them suffer? Would any story written without suffering be, well, insufferable? Would the saccharine nature of it make us sick? I spotted a great quote which may express it:

"without the shadow, how would we know
the light?"

There are plenty of people out there who think it is necessary to torture characters. A few opinions are expressed at the following websites:

The Blood Red Pencil

Novels from the Ground Up

Christine Rains

Time to Write

Writerly stuff

A few thoughts occur to me on this topic:

1) That the definition of ‘suffering’ is pretty broad, and could extend all the way from dismemberment through heartbreak to mere dissatisfaction. There is also, of course, pure empathetic pain in seeing someone else suffer.

2) The story could be a real ‘fluffy bunny’ of a children’s book, where everyone has a spiffy time taking tea with Miss. Pibble the dormouse. With blackberries she picked herself.

3) That the only other way I can see to tell a story without the characters feeling some sort of pain is to make them a psychopath. Which could be quite interesting in itself (and I did have a go at writing a story from that viewpoint, here).

4) Perhaps travel writing is somewhere that suffering-free storytelling can occur. The tale of a journey and the people encountered along the way does not seem to me to necessarily involve suffering, although I suppose it often does in one form or another.

I may however, be being short-sighted about this. I’d love to hear if you think it’s possible to write a story without any suffering, and still make it compelling. It would be nice to think that it is possible. šŸ™‚


15 thoughts on “Putting them through hell

  1. This is great stuff, Kasia. I’m going to have to look at those links a little more closely. It’s sad, but sometimes I wonder if the putting my characters through hell part is why I sometimes stall writing. Especially if my own life seems to be some version of that hell. Maybe it would help me deal with my stresses if I write about my character’s. Thanks for this post and for the mention!

    • Thanks for the thought-provoking post which started it!
      Personally, I don’t find it stalls my writing – at least I know what I need to say for once, and try and write it all in one session, so that it is over and done with. It can rather expose some of the darker and less palatable areas of my imagination though: the bits I would perhaps would rather prefer weren’t there.
      I think a lot of people do get their own stresses out on their hapless protagonists – there was a very successful program run for disenfranchised youth, where they learnt to write about their experiences, and so were better able to deal with them.

      • I admire and envy that. I think I always feel this pull between the escapist side of me and the part that needs to express itself and give what hurts to my characters, if that makes any sense at all. It makes it very hard to just sit down and write some days lol.

        PS I think that program sounds fantastic.

  2. very analytic. I know in the Dick Francis books which my wife and I enjoy the protagonist always has some personality or physical hardship to overcome. In the Larry Niven “Gil Hamilton” scifi detective stories the hero has lost an arm and has developed a psychokinetic prosthesis. “The Long Arm of Gil Hamilton”

    If stories are about change, then the ending is always defiance or acceptance. The change can be growth, overcoming hardship, adventure, or coming of age.

    One book I read about writing said that stories must contain or create longing some thing that the characters care deeply for. Suffering is one way to create that sensation.

    just my two cents as a reader. Good luck with your writing.

    • Thanks – good thoughts! Do you think that the overcoming of hardship or satisfying a longing can become too much of a standard template though?
      Or are the permutations of the theme so varied that it doesn’t become too predictable?

  3. I think that people identify with the characters and then the plot seals the deal.
    I know I especially enjoy witty dialog.

    Look at what I call “celebrityitis” where people flock to be near famous celebrities. I think the reason is that some feel that for that moment they are elevated by the presence of greatness ( whether deserved or not ).

    Think how much more powerful is going on an adventure with a true hero or heroine.

    And, when is the last time you saw an original blockbuster movie? Most are formula or remakes all the way. But think of what they give us…

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  5. The presence of suffering in a story, for me, really revolves around what the author is trying to accomplish. If the story is a drama, there has to be suffering by definition, because if none of the characters are suffering from anything, then they can’t possibly have anything to be dramatic about, lol. Whereas in a comedy, even if the characters *do* suffer, it could be in the context of a larger joke that makes light of their problems and lessens the impact of the suffering.

    For me, any fiction book that isn’t straight-up comedy should include some sort of suffering. I’m trying to think of a great story I’ve read that doesn’t involve suffering of some sort. Ender’s Game… psychological and physical suffering. Harry Potter… every kind of suffering imaginable, lol. Even in a fun movie like Pirates of the Caribbean, you get Jack’s psychological torture of nearly being hanged, Will’s emotional suffering from having Elizabeth kidnapped by rapacious pirates, etc. I guess the only difference is in how extreme the suffering is.

    • Yes, when you start to think about it, there is some sort of distress in almost every great story. I started off writing about this subject feeling pretty dubious about any kind of rule in writing that says you have to have someone suffering (to whatever degree), but having looked into it more deeply, I’m afraid they might be right! šŸ™‚
      Thanks for dropping in!

  6. Writing rules like this always make me wonder because if everyone followed them, you’d think all stories would then be too similar and wouldn’t really be creative at all. I agree it would be nice to think you don’t have to make the characters suffer for a great story. I can only think of a few favorites without much remembered suffering: Pastwatch, Cannery Row, Stranger in a Strange Land…but then The Grapes of Wrath is one of my all-time favorites and of course there’s lots of suffering in that one! Some more contemporary ones do annoy me though when it’s too obvious that the author is just throwing constant roadblocks or challenges at the character.

    • Yes, the idea that there was a ‘rule’ that you had to have suffering is what bothered me too! But it seems that if you spread the definition of suffering wide enough, then it’s probably one of the more believable ‘rules’.
      Cannery Row is a great thought! And perhaps Sweet Thursday too?

      • Strangely enough, I haven’t read Sweet Thursday yet but I really should since I loved Cannery Row – thanks for reminding me to add that one to my list!

  7. I think its hard to do, because the suffering makes the victory and happy ending all the sweeter. More importantly, most challenges involve overcoming your internal stuff, which is something we all struggle with.–mastering our self and keeping that little voice in our heads on our side. I write in the romance genre and these don’t work withouth it and I put down books when suffering is too banal (which a lot is)–basic heartbreak not the tragic or difficult that really drums up sympathy, makes the journey a tough but fulfilling one for author and writer. Just my too cents. Thanks for the food for thought. Great post as usual.

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