On Tormenting Characters


Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash

Recently a writing friend of mine, who asked me to call him Vailyon for the sake of this, posted some very interesting thoughts he titled “Pain, Writing, and the Author.” Unfortunately, his post is on a private forum, so I can’t link it here, but it did get me thinking, and I think I have a few of my own thoughts on the subject.
EDIT: His thoughts were posted with permission as a guest post on another blog. Link to that is here.

The very rudimentary gist of Vailyon’s post was that authors need to be careful about writing pain, specifically, why we’re adding that pain into the story. Pain can be a very useful tool, but it needs to have a purpose.

While most of us like to grin and cackle evilly when talking about the horrors we have in store for our characters, the truth is, this isn’t always a good thing. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being proud of being able to create emotions in readers. Without emotion, stories would be powerless, or at least would not hold the power they do in our lives. Maybe they’d be about as useful as a math problem, which is to say useful, but not very engaging on an emotional level.

But if that is all we try to do, create emotion with no end purpose, just to elicit a reaction in the reader and get them to love our stories by hating what we do to our characters, they become nothing more than just painful stories.

The world is broken. No matter what worldview, it isn’t hard to see that something isn’t right in this world, and that something needs to be fixed. This is where the pain in stories is useful, and what the ultimate purpose is. The pain has a reason, it’s not just for torture, and in the end, pain isn’t the ultimate, or the final ending. There is hope.

This doesn’t mean stories need to have a happy ending. One of my favorite books ends with the main character going to prison, and more specifically a Siberian work camp, for wrongs he committed early on in the story. Since he likely would only be classified as a torn antihero, if even referred to that strongly, I doubt many people would call the end of this story a “happy” one. But there is hope. The story ends with one of the most beautiful sentences I have ever read, and it gives hope that the main character can and is changing. And that’s really all that particular story needs. Just an indication that things can change, and that wrongs can be made right.

In contrast to this, stories that just seem to pile on pain for the sake of hurting the characters and therefore the readers, don’t really have any purpose and from what I have seen, only serve to alienate the readers from the story, and from any message it may have tried to have. It still doesn’t mean the main character can’t end the story in a bad spot. It just means the reader needs to see the hope, and see the reason for the badness in the story.

Stories inherently are meaning. And as such, the pain included in them needs meaning too.

It can even seem purposeless within the story world. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing something terribly wrong to a character, for the sake of showing the evil of the villain, or for giving realities of the world. It helps create realism, which helps keep readers reading. But this in and of itself is a purpose. And it shouldn’t last forever.

Just don’t get lost in the pain. And don’t keep doing it just because it’s fun.


Bonus thought: A few days ago, another friend of mine sent me something on Pinterest, the gist of which was “you can always tell which character is the author’s favorite, by which character nothing happens to.” We had a good laugh about that. In most cases, this is completely not true. In fact, it’s probably the opposite. If nothing happens to a character, it usually means the author doesn’t like them and thought they were boring. Writers I know tend to do the worst things to the characters they love the most. For some reason.

What about you? What reasons for pain do you use in your stories?

5 thoughts on “On Tormenting Characters

  1. I’m feeling very called out… XD

    In all seriousness, this is something I really need to think about. I know I have purpose for all of the terrible things I do to my poor unsuspecting characters (mainly with the goal to tell a good, memorable story) but I definitely need to look at the deeper purpose and the lessons that can be taught through the pain. I know a lot of the time I use it to test my main character and show off how strong he is becoming, but if it doesn’t have a deeper meaning, it could potentially throw off readers and that is not something I want to do.

    Those are my random pieces of thoughts anyways. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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