Please Don’t Torture the Characters

This Week’s Bit of String: Sandcastles full of tiny babies

My son liked building sandcastles when he was younger. Well, I’d build; he’d squish. The fun was heightened by me pretending to try and stop him stepping on the little castles. After many rounds of this, while Daddy of course reclined reading in the sunshine, I sometimes craved my own book and would tell our son to carry on without me.

So he would raise the stakes. ‘You don’t want me to crush this castle, do you?’ he might say. ‘It’s actually a hospital full of tiny babies. Quick, better stop me!’

It’s a bit like that with writing, isn’t it? We’ve got to keep the stakes up so readers stay engaged, and that requires storylines with danger and strife. When empathy is such an essential virtue in writers, how does that reconcile with the inescapable fact that we must engineer pain for our characters?

‘No puppet. No puppet. You’re the Puppet.’
Crushing sand castles
My mini Caliban Upon Setebos

First of all, it’s worth considering the writer’s relationship with the main character. Who’s really in control here? I think I speak for many writers when I say we don’t just invent a naive, flat, experience-less character and say to ourselves, ‘Aha, let’s inflict some horrors upon this person!’

Rather, a character usually appears in our minds already lugging several tonnes of baggage and clearly heading uphill. I’ve had cases where I’d like the character to take an easier path, but they insist otherwise. This happens, I suppose, because I often get the story idea first, in the form of a What If This Happened imaginary spree, and then the character evolves from the subsequent What Sort of Person Would Do It ruminations.

For example, I recently closeted myself away to edit The Wrong Ten Seconds. The idea behind it: What if the rare instant a person happened to do a bad thing was caught on viral video? The character materialising with a need for this story to be told doesn’t have an easy life. He’s practically at breaking point when the story begins. As the girl who films and shares the video comments:

‘I didn’t mean to mess everything up.’
‘They already were messed up,’ Rittell told her. ‘You made everyone see it.’

The Greater Good

I’ve mentioned before, my inspiration for this novel comes from an event that made news several years ago, so maybe that exonerates me for how the plot thickens. Art imitates life. We don’t write about people with perfect lives, because they don’t exist. Besides, would you want to read that? Even villains of great books come into the plot already scarred and damaged (Tom Riddle, anyone?)

When we write about excruciating humiliations, heart-rending loss, or gnawing guilt, we use it all to the greater good. Our unfortunate characters expose flaws in society that require attention, and hopefully they also show how these can be overcome. I like this challenge from The Editor’s Blog: ‘Give you characters weaknesses and flaws and opposition so tough that the only way they can get through is to become someone new—or become the man or woman they’d always been but had never had call to reveal.’

That explains the result of my Twitter poll this week. I asked how writers feel when their characters have to suffer. The most popular option, with 33% of the votes, was ‘A secret, excited twinge.’ Understandable; climactic conflict draws us in as readers and writers alike. Not far behind in the results, with 27% each of the vote, were ‘Agonising heartbreak’ and ‘Whatever. Can’t be helped.’ 13% said they feel malicious glee.

When one of my characters suffer a loss or rejection, I listen to sad songs and channel the times I’ve experienced the same. I’m building empathy with my star-crossed hero or heroine, and in doing so, building it with readers. The pain we create isn’t meant to tear us apart inside, but to bind us to each other. After all, how many characters have you loved that didn’t carry terrible heartache with them?

8 thoughts on “Please Don’t Torture the Characters”

  1. I am traumatised by the sand hospital full of tiny babies. And impressed at how perceptive your boy was when he was little. Empathy is a complex enough emotion, never mind working out how to induce empathy in someone else. Surely he’s a writer in the making. Is he going to follow in your footsteps?




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    1. He’s a mathematician and musician. He hates English class, but I think that’s partly just how GCSEs are done. I’m so glad I went to American schools where we got to read loads and not spend two years studying just two or three books!




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  2. I find it difficult not to identify with character’s suffering. I like your approach to building empathy by allowing yourself to fully feel the painful moment.
    Having said that, I wonder whether schadenfreude might play in the poll’s results. After all, misfortune for a nasty sort might provoke glee…




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  3. I feel empathy for my characters especially the tortured rogues… apparently they are lovable haha.
    sometimes it’s karma that the character suffers and I feel a malicious glee in delivering it, especially if it’s still character molded slightly from a real life person I happened to have let’s just say uncharitable thoughts about (I can’t be that only one who does this)

    ~B




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    1. Absolutely, and you’re not the only one. There’s definitely a feeling that our characters forge their own paths, and have to deal with the consequences. I like to see mine get their own back–although I’ve had cases where they do that a little too harshly, shall we say, and then I feel sorry for everyone involved.




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