Editor’s Note: This article is the second installment in our four-part series on how to balance darkness and hope in fiction. To learn why we’re doing this series and how we’re approaching these topics, read our introductory post.
Books were history’s first long-range torture devices, subjecting readers to vivid renditions of holocaust, suicide, doubt, and betrayal. As the worlds and characters shatter, so do our hearts.
But can we write about such situations without creating emotional scars? Should we even try?
While writers often joke about torturing their characters, torturing readers is not a laughing matter. Improperly depicting suffering may embitter people who are experiencing similar struggles. Even worse, hopeless stories can leave the audience depressed.
Yet portions of the Bible are wrought with anguish, and sometimes the darkest moments give us the courage we need in times of trouble. Through these examples, we can discover how to maneuver the unwieldy tool of suffering so readers are edified, not petrified.
Lessons from Scripture on Visceral Suffering
As a refresher, the Bible can be gut-wrenching. After Judas turns Christ over to the high priests, he grovels under the weight of his sin, frantically confesses, hurls down his blood money, and hangs himself. Children are dashed on rocks and burned alive. David’s adultery leads to his son’s death. Citizens starve to the point that they eat their own children. A woman is raped, then cut up into twelve pieces to incite the land to war.
If we believe the Bible is inspired, we must allow depictions of suffering.
But wait. While the Bible can be relatively graphic, it tells stories in a distant, omniscient style that rarely provides enough time or details for us to develop a strong connection with any of the characters. We might feel disturbed, but not as intensely as we would with a novel.
If we care about our readers, shouldn’t we keep their distress to a minimum?
Not necessarily. When we don’t plumb the depths of pain, we lose three opportunities to have a lasting impact.
First, suffering teaches powerful lessons. Most misfortune is either the direct or indirect result of a bad decision. For instance, Jacob deceives his father and steals from his brother. Years later, he receives poetic justice when his father-in-law deviously weds him to the wrong woman.
The magic of stories is that readers will follow characters down roads they haven’t yet traveled themselves. When the path is destructive, the consequences must be memorable so that readers never want to repeat the character’s mistake.
Secondly, suffering prompts difficult questions. Where is God amidst tragedy? Why are humans so wicked? When the misery is palpable, readers are more likely to hang on as you explore uncomfortable topics. Otherwise, how can they grapple with the hardships of living in a fallen world?
Lastly, suffering comforts readers who are hurting. Your story may be the only chance they have to meet someone who empathizes with their circumstances. Make sure the character’s reactions and coping mechanisms ring true on every level.
You may have noticed that two of these principles are easy to flunk: writing suffering that wrestles with challenging questions, and writing suffering realistically. I’ll address realistic suffering in my third section, but for now I’ll outline the pitfalls to avoid when using suffering to point readers to spiritual truths.
Lessons from Scripture on the Reason for Suffering
The world staggers under platitudes about suffering. The truth is simpler and more mysterious. As I’ve mentioned, suffering usually ripples out of foolish choices. But sometimes the wicked bask in happiness and prosperity while the righteous wallow in sadness and poverty. The book of Job examines this enigma.
Job and his friends exchange theories about why he’s being punished until, finally, God comes down to end the argument. Curiously, He brings no explanation. His answer is far better: Himself. His glory and sovereignty are the light by which we see. He, alone, is enough.
This makes our job as Christian storytellers both easier and harder. What could be more complicated than conveying an impression of the Almighty? Yet what could be more freeing than knowing we don’t have to rationalize all the evil in this world? By inference (Romans 8:26), God Himself groans for the suffering on earth. Perhaps groaning is how we make sense of disaster. A paradox, to be sure.
This doesn’t mean we can never explain suffering. Suffering frequently arises from our sins. Unconditional love can soothe our wounds. Even if justice seems absent on earth, it will come in the final judgement.
However, these truths, if isolated, are leaky bandages. What is justice without an understanding of holiness? What is love without the One who is love? The wisest fiction reaches for, even if it doesn’t quite touch, a sense of God’s presence, either by directly including Him or alluding to eucatastrophe, providence, and the dichotomy between holiness and grace.
If we wish, we can even skip the catalysts for suffering and go straight to the answer that remains when all others fail: God’s existence and worthiness of worship. None of us have actually beheld God, so we’ll stumble, but since we have a relationship with Him, profound art in this vein may be within our grasp.
Depicting Suffering Realistically
In a trendy YA novel, the protagonist yells “Noooooo!” at a loved one’s death, then spends the next six chapters wailing internally. In a squeaky-clean, moralistic novel, the children respond to adversity with sappy optimism, unlike the faithless adults around them. These kind of books make me doubt that the authors understand suffering.
You, of course, are determined to do better. But you’re sweating under the pressure. Eighty percent of my characters go through trials I’m not even remotely familiar with! What if my scenes seem fake? Thankfully, if you’ve ever navigated a rough season in your life, you’re capable of writing about various types of suffering. You don’t need to be a refugee to walk in your character’s shoes. Combine your unease about political events with the time you moved across the country, ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere, and had to accept help from a stranger who resembled a thug.
You don’t need to be the parent of an estranged child to imagine the heartache. In fact, you don’t even need to be a parent at all. Remember when you mentioned Where’s Waldo? to students two years younger than you, and they stared at you as if you were elderly. Remember your identity crisis when a younger sibling grew independent and no longer needed you. Remember when a friend spat insults at you and stirred others up against you because of a misunderstanding.
This is generic advice every writing instructor peddles, but I want to take it one step deeper. Don’t merely reconstruct your characters’ emotions from fragments of your own. Dig into the past (yours and theirs) and consider how it could affect their behavior in the present. The past is where half the pain of suffering tends to originate.
Let’s say you’re trying to relate to a character who’s recently been paralyzed. You can shuffle through your memory for a moment when you felt helpless, but don’t stop there. What triggered the emotion? Perhaps the crumbling of a dream that could have changed the world, or criticism from family for not being as successful in a job as they expected. Maybe another burden was dragging you down as well, such as a besetting sin, and the dual disappointments fed off of each other. Likely, a conglomeration of issues contributed to your feeling of helplessness.
When you craft characters, shamelessly steal from your own backstory to flesh out theirs—not to be biographic, but to fuel your inspiration.
For suffering that corresponds with your own, this may be enough. However, research is always beneficial. These days, everyone with a problem is plugged into a support network. You can stalk online groups and forums or request admittance to investigate further. People share their struggles in books, blogs, and on YouTube. Train yourself to think like them.
But what about antagonists? Does this apply to them?
Climbing Inside the Bad Guy’s Mind
In one of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown detective stories, the priest is asked how he solves such thorny cases. His reply is shocking: he committed them all. But what he’s implying is that he steeped himself in the rationale of the criminals so he could trace their actions.
To that, many Christian writers gulp.
Depending upon your level of sensitivity, you may opt to stay out of a psychopath’s head, but you mustn’t eschew realism. A full picture of suffering should cover both victims and perpetrators.
Fortunately, you don’t have to condone a villain’s evilness to depict him honestly. Villains can be repugnant, like the revolutionaries in A Tale of Two Cities. They may appear outwardly attractive or sympathetic, but dramatic irony can reveal their erroneous ways, like the Mule in Foundation and Empire who, because he feels unloved, attempts to conquer the galaxy but cements his loneliness instead. Lastly, they can be portraits of grace, like the real-life prison guards who, after conversion, beg forgiveness and reconcile with the prisoners they tortured.
Even so, getting close to a villain’s ickiness (and possibly being contaminated by it) is still unnerving. Horror can be crippling, and vileness can be contagious. However, horror can also warn and teach, and vileness can disgust and bring sobriety. What causes these different reactions?
Simply put, unmitigated horror warps your perspective. When my sister accidentally clicked on a spooky conspiracy theory video, she went feral and had stomach pain all afternoon. I had to reassure her that the video manipulated her emotions with audio-visual effects, its point was unproven, and it lacked hope, which a Christian can never lose. Despite my skepticism, though, I couldn’t completely shake the aura of doom. Even if the video’s predictions had been correct, it evoked nothing except dread.
Horror should lead back to wisdom. Never treat realism as an excuse to flaunt evil. Real people live and die without hope. Is that the message you want to communicate? Instead, weave dramatic irony, instances of love and joy, overarching purpose, and other positive threads through your novel to transform the brokenness into beauty.
The Tell-Tale Heart is (debatably) an example of horror that convicts. It’s a murderer’s account of his sadistic deed and how it drives him mad. (However, some might argue that his lust for blood negates the theme that crime doesn’t pay—it depends somewhat on your perspective.)
Regrettably, good intentions often go awry when authors give readers a reason to hope, then bury it. Just as a misplaced flashlight offers no help, misplaced hope offers no relief. Be especially careful with your endings. Perhaps you promise hope later in the series, but if the ending of book one is too gloomy, it will feel more like a letdown than a cliffhanger.
Vileness and anguish should be depicted realistically, whatever your situation calls for (and part of that is your target audience’s maturity level). The trick is not to whitewash reality while also infusing enough hope for readers to push through to the other side.
“I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one.” (John 17:15)
Suffering is of this world, and that’s no fluke we should hide from. But we have a much more valuable commodity to spread than happiness.
We have hope.
“You will keep him in perfect peace [literally shalom shalom, basically peace to the power of two], whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You” (Isaiah 26:3). Remember how I said that the biblical answer to suffering is the pursuit of God’s presence? The invitation in this verse should excite us to write about suffering and its solution.
Be bold. Be honest with yourself, and let your weaknesses, griefs, and inner questions fuel your portrayals of authentic suffering. Place yourself in the victim’s and perpetrator’s shoes. And embrace all the learning ahead, because the books we write shape who we become.
Are you ready?
Return on Monday as Rose discusses how to depict trials of faith. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your perspective. What do you think meaningful displays of suffering should look like?
Many moons ago, a series of suspiciously providential events led Daeus to cast his lot among the worldwide community of Christian storytellers. Since then, no reports indicate that he has come back out. Perhaps he is lost among those fine gallivanters forever. Rest in peace, Daeus Lamb.
Daeus dreams impossibly large (which doesn’t bother him a bit) and tends to bite off more than he can chew. Watch this in action as he tries to capture the depths of the fantasy genre on his YouTube channel, or as he seeks to express the meaning of life in just a short novelette. (Psst. It’s a popular little book called God of Manna and you can get it for free here.)