A few weeks ago I posted some thoughts on torturing characters in stories, which can be found here. (The second part, specifically on killing characters, can be found here.) I was going to include these thoughts in with that first post, but I thought they might be long enough to warrant their own post, and here we are.
Torturing characters can be fun. I for one have a bad tendency of grinning like an evil genius (or the Grinch) when I think of something especially horrible to do to one of my characters. I have spent literal hours talking with writing friends, laughing about what I and they plan on doing to our respective characters. We have a generally good time plotting plans and evil schemes for our characters to fall into. So I certainly don’t think torturing characters is inherently bad, or something that should be avoided if possible.
But I do think too much of it can create some dangers and pitfalls that writers should at least be aware of. Because you can’t protect yourself from things, if you aren’t even aware of them.
It can numb a writer to pain, and can hurt their ability to effectively relate to others. Immersing yourself in anything can cause a sort of immunity to that thing to develop. I believe the same holds true for when you torture characters. This likely is more of a danger for character first writers over plot writers, as they tend to feel like their characters are actually real people, instead of just players in some sort of plot. But it can be true regardless. Constantly being surrounded by death, pain and suffering, even if it’s fictional, can create bubbles and barriers around writers which can in turn make it harder not only for them to relate to people in the real world, but also to truly empathize and share the hurts of others.
And if the writer writes things that are very bad, there could also be a risk of thinking things like “oh, you’re not so bad, things can be worse.” Which is helpful maybe a tiny percentage of the time, but most of the time it isn’t. People need empathy, not to be told how worse it could get and to suck it up.
Now before anyone who knows me thinks that I’m pointing fingers at them, I’m not. All the writers I know are beautiful, very caring people who don’t seem to have hurt themselves by writing horrible tragic things about their characters. I’m only speaking from a level of personal experience, and some traps I have noticed I could be falling into in the past.
Now, I know it can do the opposite too. Being too deep into the suffering and torture inflicted on characters can cause a writer to feel too deeply the pain around them. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being aware of the pain of others, and of feeling empathy for people beyond yourself. I think this world needs more of it. What I’m talking about is the chance that, in experiencing the suffering of one’s own characters, it could cause a writer to begin to feel too much the pain that people they may not even know are going through, and in the end only hurting themselves. Most writers feel what their characters are going through, at least to a certain extent, so going through things with the characters can lend itself to a writer having even greater empathy to the plights of others. This is a very good thing. What I don’t think is a good thing, is a writer, or even any other person, feeling the weight of the world’s suffering on their shoulders and having to carry that around when there is nothing they can do about it and it does not even help the person going through the pain. Empathy creates change, but unnecessary and self imposed torment only hurts people.
What about you? Are there any pitfalls you have seen to writing suffering that writers should be aware of? Do you disagree with anything I said? Let us know your thoughts.