As writers, we often joke about how much we enjoy “torturing” our characters. Of course, this doesn’t just mean literal, physical torture, but any of the numerous ways we make our poor characters suffer, whether they be physical, emotional, or psychological. This can include the loss of loved ones, actual injuries, or extreme levels of anxiety or angst.
In short, writers are the masters of imagined suffering.
But, there is a right and a wrong way to torture characters. And I’m not exactly speaking ethics. Character suffering can add to, or take away from, the effectiveness of your story.
Today, I’m going to lay out the differences.
The wrong way
First, let’s talk about the wrong way to torture your characters. Imagine with me that you’re reading a really good book, and you’re considerably attached to the main character. We’re going to call this character Matt.
Matt is a sweet, lovable guy who lives with his hound named Tessie. He’s a bit lonely, and has had a slew of failed relationships due to his terrible social skills and chronic inability to relate to people. But he loves that dog. He loves that dog as if she were the love of his life.
One day, Tessie dies.
She gets hit by a car. Matt accidentally lets go of the leash as she dashes out into the street, chasing a squirrel… and he notices the car too late.
Matt is devastated.
But… Tessie’s death contributes nothing to the story or plot. And in the midst of Matt’s terrible grief, he slips on the ice in front of his house and cuts open his chin on a rock. He ends up needing seven stitches.
This injury is about as random and pointless as the death of his dog.
Now, if you were reading this book, I think you’d be screaming one word: “WHY?” Why do these terrible things have to happen to poor Matt? What’s the point?
The problem here is that there is no point. That’s just it. Suffering that seems to have no purpose will accomplish nothing except frustrate the reader.
The right way
You can torture your characters as much as you like, but it’s important that you do it intentionally. Your readers will eventually feel numb and disconnected if characters suffer just to suffer. Their pain has to mean something. It has to have a purpose.
“But, how do I add purpose to my sadistic torment?” you ask, setting aside your scalpels and hot irons.
I’m glad you asked. Here are six possible purposes for character suffering:
1. To increase feelings of danger.
If your character is running from a monster and trips and scrapes his knee, or if she’s fighting in battle and gets stabbed in the shoulder, it reminds readers that your characters are not invincible. It makes the danger feel more real, and readers will be more at the edge of their seats, hoping the characters get out of their situations alive.
2. To create empathy.
When we read about characters who experience loss or pain – especially if that pain is familiar to us – our hearts naturally go out to them. We feel sorry for hurting characters, and we become more attached to them. As a result, we become more engaged in the story.
3. To add realism.
Returning to the example of the character in battle: Imagine if she fought throughout the entire battle… and never received one injury. Not even a nick or scratch. Well, we would find that hard to believe. The battle itself would feel less real. A little bit of character pain can ground readers in the scene, making it more believable, and making it feel like they’re there.
4. To add to the plot.
Sometimes your character needs a nudge – or a violent shove – to get them to move, to change their minds, to motivate them to pursue a goal. A common way to accomplish this is through the death of a loved one. Be careful with this technique, though, because it’s easy for it to become cliché if handled too casually. It helps if the readers also care about the character who dies. Additionally, this character should have more purpose in the story than simply becoming a martyr to the protagonist’s cause.
5. To frustrate the character’s goals.
The essence of plot is this: A character pursues a goal, but obstacles stand in his way. These obstacles are the various challenges and setbacks that make a story interesting. Sometimes these obstacles are incredibly painful for your protagonist. This is probably the most forgivable cause of character suffering, because readers will basically expect it.
6. To cause character growth.
We all grow from pain, and characters are no different. A character who doesn’t grow at all during the course of a story is a boring character to read about. Like heated metal in a forge, your character becomes pliable during torment, ripe for reshaping and improvement. Allow her pain to make her stronger… or maybe, if the book is a tragedy or if she’s an antihero, that pain can make her more bitter, angry, and cruel. Either way, suffering brings ample opportunity for change.
What are some purposes you use when torturing your characters? Can you think of any more? Or, here’s a fun question: What’s the worst thing you’ve done to any of your characters? *winking evil grin*