Writers are a brutal sect. We spend our free time inventing new methods of torturing characters, all while cackling like gremlins over the tears of heartbroken readers. “I’m off to kill someone” is a phrase tossed around like a tennis ball in writing communities.
To the outside observer, our dark humor may seem psychotic. What normal person beats their brainchildren into a pulp only to quip about it later? Although the jokes are often in poor taste, suffering draws in writers, and readers, for better reasons than mental instability. Characters are like clams hiding pearls within tightly clamped shells. The only way to find the treasure (or lack thereof) is to pry the creature open, and pain is an excellent tool. When used correctly, it cracks otherwise stalwart characters, creating new channels for empathy.
However, tossing characters onto a bed of thorns isn’t guaranteed to reveal their true colors. Establishing a line between meaningful tragedy and sadism can be tricky, especially when we’re not sure what attracts us. Redefining why we hurt our characters, as well as how to sensitively depict their ordeals, will not only save us from a questionable reputation but also help us tap into the power of human vulnerability.
The Purpose of Physical Pain
Before diving headfirst into a pool of characters’ blood, we need to examine why readers and authors alike seem to relish tormenting their fictional faves. Despite what snarky writing memes might suggest, nobody truly enjoys watching a beloved character get dragged over glass for the sake of drama.
The horror genre capitalizes on gore to shock and disgust audiences, not captivate them emotionally. I’ve seen the same effect unintentionally implemented in countless young writers’ manuscripts, where they heap on more and more misery with the hazy goal of making readers cry. Instead, all the audience feels is queasiness—and after the seventh mortal injury in the span of three chapters, boredom.
Here’s the bottom line: readers don’t love pain. They love the truth pain exposes.
During a battle in The Dragon’s Tooth by N. D. Wilson, Nolan, a sarcastic immortal, takes a bullet in the stomach to protect his friends. Delirious and weeping, he’s unable to maintain his chilly facade and pleads to be executed, betraying his secret longing for the death he’s incapable of obtaining. The moment is heart-wrenching, not because he’s in agony, but because of the frailty his agony uncovers.
Suffering is the conduit for unfiltered glimpses of characters’ souls. It strips away lies and pretenses, leaving behind a raw version of themselves that bares the motivations behind their beliefs, reactions, and choices. When readers claim to want heroes and heroines to struggle, what they’re actually hoping for is a chance to experience deeper connection, understanding, and catharsis.
Unleashing a character’s innermost self isn’t as simple as besetting him with the worst affliction we can imagine, however. The paradox of writing evocatively is that the pain itself is the least important element.
1. Discover the Source
The more a writer flaunts his florid medical vocabulary, the more likely readers will throw the book, not throw themselves across a bed in tears. That’s because pain’s impact relies on cause and effect: how the situation plays out, and how the characters respond. If a stranger punches the protagonist, readers will cringe. But if his best friend attacks him, readers will weep.
Cause and effect are an emotional minefield when set up properly. Don’t just stab a character with a sharp object, also stab him with a sharp reality. Search for the loose thread in his worldview, the concealed flaw, the traumatic past, and plunge that into his gut. In Amazing Grace, the enormous pressure of William Wilberforce’s convictions takes a physical toll on him, and he contracts a debilitating illness that brings his abolitionist campaigns to a careening halt. His own mission cripples him, increasing the complexity of both the plot and the characters.
We can do the same by preying on our characters’ deepest loves and fears. If the protagonist is an obsessive perfectionist, bowl him over with personal failure. If he’s a protective leader, target his little brother. If he’s terrified of bees, place his goal on the other side of a hornets’ nest and see if he backs down. Although physical impairment is often treated merely as a plot device, when we incorporate our characters’ psyches, the potential for compelling climaxes becomes limitless.
2. Surprise Readers with the Result
The continuum of the cause and effect sequence is the character’s reaction—the gasp of betrayal, the whispered prayers, the curling into a fetal position—which sets the tone for the rest of the scene. Boromir’s demise would be less gripping if he didn’t repeatedly surge to his feet despite the arrows embedded in his chest. The bullet in Nolan’s stomach would sting less if he didn’t regret his immortality. And William’s condition would be less distressing if he didn’t writhe on the floor, begging his pregnant wife for stories about their unborn child to give him the strength to overcome a relapse.
We shouldn’t inflict intense suffering only to abruptly pan away. Scenes need to simmer, and characters need to roil in their thoughts. The least expected reaction tends to be the most poignant: strong characters collapsing in grief, weak characters displaying bravery, and forbidden secrets bursting into the sunlight or sinking deeper into the shadows.
Moderation and pacing are crucial, however. In the 70s western series The Big Valley, main characters get shot, stabbed, trampled, kidnapped, falsely imprisoned, locked in insane asylums, buried beneath collapsed buildings, and more—all within a few episodes. The rapid-fire hardships serve as adrenaline kicks with no lasting consequences, leaving the audience unfazed.
Suffering is like a strong spice that enhances the flavor of our story stew. If we dump the whole bottle in, our dinner guests will dump their supper out. Bludgeoning characters destroys the guise of realism and makes readers start skimming. A character’s encounter with physical pain must hold weight, and quantity does not produce quality. Rather, let his truest, most repressed identity trickle out through his wounds, one drop at a time.
Seasoning Words with Wisdom
Torturing characters can become so routine that we forget the gravity our portrayals carry. Taking anything seriously is hard when six pounds of chocolate and a raging caffeine addiction fueled all those battles and natural disasters and monster invasions. I’d be a liar if I denied ever joking about my characters’ misery—what casual listeners find depressing seems comical when viewed with omniscient eyes.
But caustic writing humor can quickly cross the line to flippancy. Bloodshed may seem distant and unconcerning when it’s a figment of our imaginations instead of a bulletin on our local news channel, but we should be careful not to mock actions God calls sin. As Colossians 4:6 entreats us, we need to continually examine our speech, ensuring that it will “always be with grace, seasoned with salt.”
Ultimately, fictional pain is a means to an end. Instead of glorying in our self-proclaimed roles as masterminds of suffering, we should look for ways to help readers, not hurt characters. We’re capable of creating thrillers full of cheap shock value, or emotionally evocative stories full of indelible lessons, and the difference separating the two is the vulnerability characters show and the empathy readers feel.
Sarah Baran views herself as fiercely intimidating, but anyone who’s seen her trip over her own shoelaces knows the truth. She’s a paradox disguised in human form, a purveyor of caustic wit, a reluctant people-lover, and an idealistic cynic who sees the world through cracks in her rose-colored glasses. A love for writing grabbed her in a stranglehold when she was only a child, so she decided to give storytelling a whirl. If she’d known this decision would lead to an unhealthy obsession with daggers and many sleepless nights agonizing over finding the perfect words to describe a tree, she might have opted for a safer career choice. Regardless, she’s never looked back.
When she isn’t writing, Sarah dons the role of grouchy librarian and glares at children over the rims of her glasses. You can find her having a good time at humanity’s expense on her blog, TheSarcasticElf.com.