The unwillingness to make characters suffer is a common source of writing resistance.
Unwillingness to make real people suffer in real life is what separates us from sociopaths. In memoir, personal essays and other creative nonfiction, writers are often resistant to write in specific detail about the suffering they and others endured. The resistance is to remembering and retelling.
In fiction, the resistance is to causing the suffering.
We can’t skip the pain. Conflict and unmet desires are the very heart of fiction. This is not a story:
Once there was a hobbit who lived in a hole in the ground. He was not visited by wizards and dwarves, he did not go on any adventures or have his whole life turned upside down in other ways. He lived a long, happy and prosperous life filled with good fortune. (yawn)
No one cares about characters who have everything they need and want. We care about characters who struggle, who want something badly – and often need something else entirely even more – and can’t have what they want and need until they overcome obstacles and change themselves.
So fictional characters must hurt and strive and fail, and hurt more and strive more. Once they get what they want or need, the story is pretty much over except for tying up the loose ends.
You care about your characters. You like them, admire them, root for them. You love them and all their foibles. So what kind of person makes characters she or he loves suffer so much?
What kind of mind can imagine the terrible things that happen to characters?
Years ago, I did a reading from a work in process where the main character, a soldier, was drugged and psychologically tortured. I thought I did skillful work in showing how his consciousness shifted and his perceptions warped as the drug took hold of him. I showed his pain in specific detail.
One of my friends was shocked by what I read. How could I imagine that kind of torture? What kind of twisted mind do I have anyway?
Wondering how you can imagine the kind of suffering a character needs to endure can create resistance. Hearing that one of your friends is appalled (even just temporarily, we’re still friends) by what your imagination is capable of can create major resistance.
Do you question yourself about your ability to create pain? Do you, like T.R. and like me for a while, resist writing the scenes where people are going to get hurt?
Do you stop short of where the story needs to go because you’re afraid of what others will think of you? How do you know when you’ve gone far enough? Too far?
I’ll explore these questions in my next post. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your reactions. How do you do that bad thing you do?