Pain, Writing, and the Author

By Vailyon; used with permission

Pain is a part of writing. And no, not yours necessarily. I’m talking about your characters. That one you threw in a prison cave for a week to get lost, half starved, and mauled by a wolf. The other that you tortured to near death in the villain’s lair. The one you killed. And not just physical pain. Those who were left behind after that one died. The one you made her entire town turn against her. The one who made the wrong decision and shattered a relationship. Pain is a part of writing.

However. However. Sometimes pain is dangerous. Yes, you heard me. And yes, I know I participate in the weekly critique group that we have termed “Painweavers.” And yes again, I have done every single one of the things listed in the above paragraph, as well as forcing a character away from her fiancĂ© and everything she’s known and piling a curse on her in the first chapter, breaking wrists, giving multiple near death experiences, and having even worse things planned. And yet I say the above statement again. There are times when pain can be dangerous.

Now that I’ve got your attention, I can explain myself. Every story has pain. It’s part of what makes a good story. Tolkien sends Frodo and Sam on a grueling quest across Mordor to destroy the ring. Lewis slays Aslan on the Stone Table. Andrew Peterson sends the Wingfeather family across a continent, separating them, breaking their resolve. We as humans in a fallen world relate to pain. We’ve lived through family dying, friends forsaking us, our own internal brokenness. When a character struggles, we relate to them. So then, let’s make our characters suffer atrocities so our readers relate to them and love them even more, right?

Wrong. As writers, we must carefully walk the tightrope of pain. No pain? No way to relate to the characters, and what kind of story would you have without pain? All the pain? This is where we can stray into the “danger” category of pain. Pain becomes dangerous when it becomes pointless. To explain, I’ll step back and ask a bigger question. Why do people read stories? Don’t think about why you write, but why people read. Some people read to escape, some to learn, but mainly people read to find hope. They want to see that despite all odds, good does win at the end. Even when things are horrible, somehow, good prevails. Think about it. Despite the orcs, the lack of water, even Sauron himself, Sam and Frodo still succeed in destroying the ring. Yes, Aslan was slain, but he came back to life and destroyed the witch who killed him.  The Wingfeathers finally find a place of rest and a home. The pain, the dangers, the hopelessness, it all makes the happy ending shine all the brighter. 

If we as writers forget this, we stray into dangerous ground. Have you ever said, “Oh my readers are going to hate this,” then laughed maniacally? What about, “Poor [insert character’s name],” while smiling on the inside? I have. And while these thoughts are not in and of themselves bad, they might point to a deeper problem. We may have forgotten the reason behind the pain, and just began to insert pain into our characters’ lives just because it’s pain. Or just to make our readers love them more and hate us. Perhaps it would do us some good to step back and ask a simple question.

Why? That simple question can help balance us on this tightrope of pain. Why am I doing this to my character? Why did I just give my character a laceration from her knee to her ankle? She was stupid and refused help. Why do I have her rejected and nearly lynched by a town? To show the broken racism of her world and make the faithful companions that much better. Why separate her from her fiancĂ© in the first place? To show what love truly looks like. This question can help calibrate our internal pain meters.  If you ever come across pain that is there just for the sake of hurting your character, remove it. In fact, I might go so far as to say that if you find pain in your story that does not help further your story’s greater theme and plotline, eradicate it. Remove the scene.

Finally, the thought that spurred this massively long musing on pain. We as writers should never, let me repeat, never, glory in pain. Yes, be happy that you wrote a painful scene well. But never let the pain be the reason you write. And no, I’m not just talking to the sadist. This can spring up even in us “normal” writers. I’ve had to try my best to squash the tendency, especially in my current novel. I have to be careful and ask myself, “Why?” And just to make her life miserable is not a sufficient answer. It shouldn’t be for you either.

Mainly people read to find hope…if you find pain in your story that does not help further your story’s greater theme and plotline, eradicate it…never let the pain be the reason you write.

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