Everybody loves a sadist. At least, when it comes to storytelling. The more pain and misery a writer puts her or his characters through, the more we adore it. But how can you torment your characters without going too far, or falling flat? Here are 10 killer rules for how to bring the pain.
Images by Donato Giancola
To be honest, this is something I've struggled with a lot as an author, and I still have a hard time with it — which is why I've tried to come up with a few rules of thumb about how best to inflict misery. And maybe you can all gain something from the torment that I, personally, have gone through.
Oh, and it should go without saying that this is about psychological torture, at least as much as physical torture — unless you're writing a Saw tie-in novelization, in which case go nuts and good luck finding synonyms for "tendon." So here are some rules that I've come up with:
1. Resist your natural urge to go easy on the characters you love
This is sort of the most obvious one — but if you're at all good at this, you're going to be invested in your characters and you'll want them, deep down, to be happy. They may feel like aspects of your own personality, and thus causing them misery is like wishing misery on yourself. But you have to get past that, and push yourself to make things worse for these people who live inside you. It's not even as if you'll think of something horrible that could happen to your beloved characters, and then balk — it's that you won't think of the terrible things that could happen, because you'll be sliding into wish-fulfillment mode, and imagining things going smoothly for these folks.
2. Turn that empathy into masochism.
Because these characters live in your head and you understand them better than anyone, you also have a unique understanding of how to make them extra-miserable. In fact, when you're sitting there imagining everything going smoothly for your characters and them reaching their goals without too much hassle, try to see what your mind is sliding away from. The blind spot you're slinking past on the way to the easy path you're dreaming up. Whatever it is you're not even letting yourself look at, is probably what you ought to be doing with these characters. Probably. But at the same time, don't go to the opposite extreme and get stuck torturing your characters over and over — there probably ought to be a point to all this. For more on that...
3. People should suffer for their mistakes, but also their good deeds
A lot of the secret of artful misery involves making it feel as though things are happening for some reason — although a certain amount of randomness is important too, as we discuss below. Suffering that happens because of your characters' decisions is way more interesting — and often more painful, because of remorse. A lot of the most powerful fictional torment comes as a result of people's terrible decisions, but it's also really poignant to see someone stick his or her neck out for justice, and get dinged. One trick that I've found interesting sometimes is to show a character who appears to be suffering for no reason at all — and you don't realize for a while that he or she actually did something to deserve this, but is unaware of it. Don't be afraid to highlight your characters' flaws — especially the ones that they're not personally aware of.
4. Pause and really make us feel the impact
The worst thing I've noticed, in my writing and in other people's, is when people suffer and just shrug it off. That's when the misery really feels pointless — when it makes almost no impression that the reader is aware of. I see this in a lot of young-adult novels, curiously — despite their reputation for being "dark" and for wallowing in misery, a lot of YA books feature characters who suffer horrible misfortunes but still keep moving forward, with a plucky, upbeat voice. The worst is when the characters are too busy dealing with the next thing, and the next thing after that, to process what's already happened to them. You need to let us feel that these events are having an emotional impact, or they really are pointless. Speaking of which...
5. Don't be too keen to move to the next plot point.
A lot of the time, when you're going too easy on your characters, it's because you have an outline and the next thing that happens is they get the magic coin or find the android's severed head. The point is for them to pass the points on their journey and then reach the finish line, right? Not exactly. The point, if anything, is for them to get lost and derailed and to run into complications. If your characters are having too easy a time — or not really experiencing the awfulness you're exposing them to — it could well be because you're trying to move them forward. Your characters want to move forward, but it's part of your job to hinder them.
6. Nastiness is a function of world-building. And ideology.
People don't behave in an unconscionable manner just because they were dropped on their heads as children — there's usually a social context in which it makes sense for them to behave that way. Even if not everybody agrees with their behavior. If you're having a hard time making some of your characters mean enough, or making their unpleasantness feel properly unpleasant and real, then this is probably a function of bad worldbuilding. Maybe you need to think more about why some people in your fictional world would think it was okay to be prejudiced against your main character — because of ethnic, sexual, religious or other differences, maybe — and maybe you need to construct more of an ideology that supports being somewhat abusive, in some circumstances. In the same way that hardly anybody ever thinks they're the villain of their own story, people usually don't act like monsters without some social context that explains or justifies it.
7. Misery is a crucible
You torture your characters not just to be a jerk, but because you are trying to make them evolve and grow. Sometimes you're making them change for the worse (in your own subjective estimation.) But anything your characters experience ought to change them, or you're wasting your readers' time — and this probably goes double for misery. We don't just need to feel the impact of the suffering, we need to see how it's causing changes in your characters' behavior or beliefs. And that, in turn, means that you should probably try to inflict pain that is calculated to cause changes, not just pain that seems like it might be entertaining to witness. Which brings us to...
8. Suffering is universal, but the truly unique characters have unique pain
If your characters are worth anything at all, then they're going to be idiosyncratic. Which means, what bothers your characters is specific to them. They might shrug off things that would break someone else, but find one particular thing intolerable. Maybe they have a childhood trauma that left them very sensitive about certain topics. Maybe they have more recent wounds that you can pour some vinegar on. Part of how you define and sharpen your characters is to show what hurts them in particular, as opposed to showing that they are bothered by the same things that bother everybody else in the world.
9. Sometimes deliver rewards where we're expecting punishments
To be realistic, pain must be somewhat random — and there's nothing more cunning than setting the reader up for a grenade and then giving us, instead, some nice candy. Especially if the reader feels as though your character has screwed up and is about to be punished — this will just make the next emotional beatdown feel more painful and less predictable. You gotta make them flinch every time someone enters a room, because they don't know if this will be the misery train arriving at the station.
10. Readers expect a narrative payoff and trajectory
What all of this adds up to is, most of the time suffering should feel as though it has some point, in the end. It was all leading somewhere. Maybe not to a happy ending or a group hug, but to some kind of resolution. The hurt you put on your characters is a huge part of the texture of your story, and people should come away feeling as though you were actually telling a story — which means that pain needs to have an arc to it, and it needs to reach a real conclusion. That's the difference between a story and reality TV.