It's Time We Talked About Suffering
In the Gospel of Writing According to Julie, the first rule of fiction is this:
1. Stories need characters who want something they can’t have.
The second rule is like unto it:
2. You should pile those characters with problems that seem impossible to solve.
This might seem both obvious and repetitive, but it is neither. I see reams of writing by aspirants who haven’t figured this out. They may conjure beautiful worlds or gruesome crimes or perplexing situations. They may do clever things with voice or with character. But until such a writer figures out that their characters need to want something out of reach, and must struggle through difficult challenges, they will not make a story.
The frequency with which I see these rules violated convinces me that they are not obvious. Neither are they repetitive. Let’s call the unmet desire of Rule 1, The Quest. (Obviously, I’m not the first to do so.) And let’s call the problems in Rule 2, the Other Problems. OPs. To be sure, the Quest is undoubtedly a problem for the character. They want world peace, true love, their lost puppy, the Holy Grail, salvation. They can want better grades, or revenge on their stepmom, or the elixir of eternal youth, but they have to want something that’s out of reach. That’s a problem. That’s The Quest. In addition to the main problem, the character needs to be barraged by a more or less constant stream of Other Problems. OPs. Depending on the tone, genre, and readership level of your audience, these other problems can range from lost teddy bears and rainy picnics, to pratfalls in piles of mashed potatoes, to slaughtered loved ones via zombie apocalypse, or garden-variety existential despair because life stinks and then you break your hip and die (Snoozer Alert!). Regardless, your character, in pursuit of The Quest, must slog uphill through a torrent of OPs until they’ve reached The Quest, or failed to do so.
The Quest may have taken new shape. That’s fine. It may surprise the character. What’s behind Door Number One may turn out to be Y instead of X. I thought, says your character, that I wanted to rescue the captive prince, but, transformed by my struggles, I decided to stage a coup, bare my love for the blacksmith, and dwell in anarchic bliss beside him, making romantic sparks fly, hammer and tongs, until forever. So be it. The point is, along the way, there had jolly well better be a blizzard, a plague, a rival lover, an assassination plot, demonic possession, or a venereal disease. Or all the above.
You’ve all heard about making your characters suffer, and killing your darlings, and every other platitude that’s become a cliché. But why? Why such cruelty, such sadism in literature? Are writers just Fifty Shades of Mean?
Maybe. Some are. But so, I imagine, are some postmen.
The kindest thing we can do for our characters is give them a chance to appear on the page, to be read and loved by actual humans. It follows, then, that the kindest thing we can do is make our characters suffer. That’s what makes readers care. We only invest ourselves in characters as we watch them stretch, fight, bleed, and grieve. Even if we’re talking about comedies. Suffering evokes sympathy and empathy. Also, such struggle and sacrifice are the only ways the character can grow and gain the strength to face the real Quest, whatever it turns out to be. If a character was equipped to slay the dragon on page one, where is the story? Boring! The character’s journey must mold and harden (or buffet and soften) them into the kind of person they need to be to face their crucial test.
The impulse to protect the character is strong, and not just for beginning writers. I thought I was immune to it. In all my classes, I preach the gospel of suffering. But in the book I’ve been working on most recently, it took me about four passes through to succumb to all the hard things I needed to do to one particular character. Some part of me knew it, all along, but I wouldn’t admit it. I shied away from it. Even as other readers hinted at what I should consider, I jammed my fingers in my ears, clutched the pages protectively to my chest, and snarled. This is hard to do with only one set of hands.
I guess nobody’s immune to temptation.
Making those hard choices was absolutely what the novel needed. I wonder what would have happened to my writing journey if I’d figured it out sooner? I suppose I needed to face the quest of that sluggish, scalp-scratching drafting and revising and revising in order to become the kind of writer brave enough to kill this particular dragon*.
Is it glib of me to speak in so cavalier a tone, when suffering is all too real and costly in our world? Possibly. But I believe we grow as humans, we deepen our capacity to face actual suffering with impactful compassion, as we dress-rehearse the process by means of a steady diet of fictional suffering. Readers learn to care about the homeless and the destitute by reading about imaginary orphans and wanderers. Writers build the empathy to tackle the most brutal subjects in the real world but writing stores of demons and monsters. Myths are not simply for our entertainment. They serve a deeply moral purpose.
So be strong, writers, and be kind and concerned human beings, but stamp out stray impulses toward kindness wherever you find them creeping into your character’s arc. Be an imperious god on the mountaintop. Peer down through the clouds at the puny mortals occupying your fictive world, and blast them with lightning bolts. Put another way: Play God indeed. Know your characters intimately; love then desperately, so much that you allow them to hurt and to grow. Even as it grieves you. Just be careful that it doesn’t show.
*Note: The killing of dragons in this blog post is strictly metaphorical. No actual dragons were harmed in the writing of this piece.
P.S. Thanks again, as always, to my fabulous sister Sally Gardner for coming to my rescue with her illustration magic. The prisoner with the smiley cell-mate, above, is hers.
Three Random Facts About Me:
- I wish I had a pet lion. I seriously do. Or a bear. Not that I think it would be safe. It would be catastrophically dangerous and stupid. But I still wish I had either one.
- I wish I could swim with dolphins, for real, and not just for a short tourist time slot, and that they’d take me on rides and make me their dolphin spirit sister and teach me the undiscovered poetry and beauty of their ancient language, which I would quickly master. And they would not let the sharks eat me.
- I also wish I had a dragon. But it would need to love me instantly, because if I had to earn its respect through patient cleverness, I’d be crème brûlée by the end of day one. Also I wonder if dragons smell bad.