A Common Provenance in Pain

"All things of grace and beauty have a common provenance in pain: 
their birth in grief and ashes."

I am going to address a paradigm among the writers that I know, and because it is among writers that I know (those I don't know may benefit from this also) I feel I must proceed with delicacy.  Unfortunately I am not very good at delicacy, and when I address anything I feel I tend to lay about me rather hard...  It is not so much that I think the writers are wrong as I feel there needs to be a paradigm shift away from what is potentially a very wrong view to a view which more accurately reflects how our own Creator chooses to craft us.

The problem is pain.  To clarify still further, the subject is that of inflicting pain on characters, and the author's mental state, emotional drive, and rational motive for doing so.

First of all, writing books and nurturing characters is not mechanical.  If you are stuck, you cannot simply "throw a curve-ball at your character" to see what he does.  Don't simply knock his legs from under him for the sake of making something happen.  Tearing something down has no effect if you do not already have a plan to built it up again.  There are plenty of reasons for being stuck, most of them are self-inflicted, most of them are due to laziness or poor planning (the author is generally considered to be at fault when the writing goes bad), and there are lots of ways of getting through writer's block.  Random acts of violence is not one of them, and is as much a crime in literature as it is among live human beings.

Secondly, and this is the really difficult aspect of writers and pain that I have to address, people make their characters hurt because they think it's fun.  I have heard a lot of writers express pleasure about "the next big thing" they're going to put their characters through.  I've heard them begin cooking up new methods of torture because they like to invent new ways of hurting their "poor charries."  Now, outside of literature, here in the real world, we have names for people who find inflicting pain on other people to be enjoyable.  The most jarring, and the most all-encompassing, is sadist.  I think really amateur writers who enjoy hurting their characters are actually masochists, as they don't quite have the skill to detach themselves from their characters.  Whatever the relationship between the writer and the character, the uncomfortable truth remains: enjoying making people hurt is messed up.

We are all enjoined to be charitable and wise.  I'm not asking you to resist pushing your characters to the limit, tearing loved ones from them, and making them hurt emotionally and physically in many ways.  A good plot, a good story, will often take the salt out of a character before he gets to the end.  But we do that to our characters (if we are, not only good writers, but good thinkers about why we write) not to sit back like Zeus and watch the little human worms flail, but to see their mettle harden, to see their resolve become compounded.  We collapse them in the crucible of pain and suffering to make them into something better.  Pain is never its own end.  It is sometimes a means, as the smith's hammer is a means.  I may take a character and strip him of every comfort, every joy, every light, and I'll do it to see whether or not, when all else has gone dark and cold, he can still see enough to cling to his hope.

I think you can all see why this approach to handling character growth is a better one than just flogging your characters because, to them, you are their god and you can do it if you want to.  Our God does not simply flog us because he can.  He may push us to the limit (but never beyond what we are able to bear), he may take our loved ones from us (but the living will receive back their dead), and our bodies and our minds do suffer an almost constant battering by disease and depression.  We carry about in our bodies the dying of Jesus, not to be morbid, but so that the life of Jesus may be manifest in us.

I tell my four-year-old nephew: "Let's think about what we're about to do."  I usually have to say this after he has unthinkingly stumbled into trouble.  But he's four years old.  He has plenty of time to grow.  We are now adults, intelligent, thinking adults, and here is another aspect of our art that needs attention: what do we believe about pain, why do we inflict it, what is its purpose?  We have a great example to look to.  "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus." 

6 ripostes:

  1. Oh Jenny this is so true! Oh yuck how am I to say what I think without sounding trite? Oh well I'll take a stab at it anyway. I recently wrote a post about this only dealing with killing characters. To often we do fall into the rut of "shoving conflict". I recently flipped through a book at the library and since the premise was good I sat down to read it. About halfway through I found that something was bothering me. Finally I realized that the conflict was all unnecessary. The character wasn't growing through it the book was merely a collection of happenings and reactions. I love your analogy of God and the gods.

    "A good plot, a good story, will often take the salt out of a character before he gets to the end. But we do that to our characters (if we are, not only good writers, but good thinkers about why we write) not to sit back like Zeus and watch the little human worms flail, but to see their mettle harden, to see their resolve become compounded. We collapse them in the crucible of pain and suffering to make them into something better. Pain is never its own end. "

    Yes! Thank you Jenny for another well thought out and to the point post.

    Oh and I at least like when you lay about you. You wouldn't be the Penslayer if you didn't, besides we all know you do it for Our Own Good.

  2. Very good. A point my father used to make in not so many words. Childish versions are like Anne's melodramatics in her teens, rather simply enjoying agonizing characters to the point of ridiculousness; but the worse forms are when good adult writers are simply being sadistic. Many have felt this is a form of dystopic "realism," that a story truly written to change minds or change society must be full of senseless pain, but I think they have failed to change what they sought to change because the writing actually turned into this pointless pain, wilfully inflicted without remedy by the writer... too often the case in existential authors.

    And I wonder, since the mind of the reader is carried with the characters, whether the sadistic enjoyment on the author's part is purely imaginary... perhaps when we turn to this deviation of good writing, we are also enjoying the pain of real human beings in the form of readers... enjoying dragging their minds through a pigsty and then leaving them there, no better or wiser, and perhaps worse, for the journey.

  3. Quite right, Jenny! (And well put, as usual.)
    It always baffles me when people enjoy harming their characters, or when I see "writing prompts" on Pinterest that tell you to do this and that random thing that has nothing to do with your plot or book. Probably the hardest part of writing, for me, is trying to hurt my characters, because I usually want to keep them all safe and comfortable because, well, parts of them are me. Hurting or harming them usually means a day or two of internal battle, and deciding whether or not to keep the jab in the book. In the end, it usually stays though. I'm learning to let them fall, instead of holding their hands.

    Also, I'm learning just how much like mothering writing can be.

  4. What about changeups? Can I throw changeups at my characters? ...sliders?

    A little while ago I was talking with Tim about writing and I found myself saying the words, "One of these days I'll write something where the love interest(s) don't get violently killed." To which he gave a rather skeptical shrug. So with this post I find myself thinking, again, about why my stories tend to run that way. In my reading, too, I tend to gravitate toward the darker, heavier (even, dare I say, existential) works. As far as characters go, though, apart from the relatively surface-level "tie him up and hold him over the volcano's edge, and on that day, you will finally meet the man," sort of sentiment (which does have value), I think the point to keep in mind is that the characters that are truly human are never victims. Far from being subject to the whims of a bored, sadistic creator or the fickle caprices of fate, real characters tend to generate their misery from within. It might (usually will) be compounded by circumstances, but the disposition determines the response. And the authors that truly understand humanity will either bring them through the pain, as Dostoevsky does with Raskolnikov and Tolstoy with Konstantin Levin, or will leave them shattered by it, as Dostoevsky does with Ivan Karamozov, and Tolstoy with Anna Karenina.

    One more point: I think your statement that perceived sadism in authors, and readers, is more accurately called masochism, is entirely correct and probably warrants a more thorough examination. Despite what the humanists would have us believe, our world is full of souls left shattered and hopeless by the terrible agony of separation from God. Is it any wonder our art is too? Because when the ol' double-overhanded-yellowhammer does come flying in at you, what are you going to do?

  5. A well-said and profound post, Jenny. I think it was something I needed to read, not because I enjoy putting my characters through torture and death, on the contrary it is a sort of gut-wrenching thing that leaves me with a feeling of a dull ache of grief and sympathy when one of my characters suffer and go through the fire of pain, but rather this post helped me remember WHY I allow my characters to go through painful experiences and evil - why I do it is really there as an echo of the sufferings we humans will and must go through in our walk through life, the 'groaning of creation' until the liberation of the children of God, the question of suffering and how, at times like Job, God allows us to go through times of pain and darkness (but the temptation is never more than we are able to bear, and that is an encouraging thought!) so that when we are refined in the furnace of affliction we may come out 'as gold, purified seven times' and that there is final victory, hope and joy in the faith of the Eternal God - who Himself suffered the violence of a death unspeakable. In writing scenes of suffering and darkness, I learn with my characters of the 'trial by fire', but that there is a final victory over death (that it isn't about the dragons, but rather that the dragons can be conquered), and yet also that there can be no victory without sacrifice, no life without death and burial. In a sense, writing about suffering helps me at times make sense of the questions and trials I go through, the sufferings and pain of my brothers and sisters, and realizing that there is hope and joy with God in the deepest of sufferings (I think, Jenny, you'd readily recognize this, as I see from your own novel, The Shadow Things); as you said, 'We carry about in our bodies the dying of Jesus, not to be morbid, but so that the life of Jesus may be manifest in us.' And that is all the 'sufferings' I let my characters go through usually - well, yes, there IS an unpleasant fellow who is assassinated to vitally help in the plot of one of my stories, one of main characters is injured and nearly dies, a young woman is badly treated by her husband, a man's brother is killed in an ambush, and in more than one occasion characters believe that their beloved ones are dead and suffer the grief of it only to realize that they still live. And of course - there is martyrdom in one of my stories... that one I know will be SO HARD TO WRITE!

    But you are so right, the truth of the matter is, we must not delight in it or even in the imagination of writing pain. It is true that it is down-right wrong to enjoy those moments where we are inflicting pain on our characters and seeing how they'll react and all that. Yes, one often sees the mettle and colours of the human heart in those moments of sufferings, but that doesn't mean that we go out of our way to scorch them or enjoy the process. Our world has grown far too used to seeing brutal deaths and pain and torture and suffering that we've grown apathetic to it, even in the world of our stories... that should not be so. Life is sacred. And the violation of it is not one to be taken lightly.

  6. VERY well said!!! *thunderous applause* Now, I - like many of my author friends - am known to frequently write tortured, pain-ridden characters. And yes, I'll even joke about it now and then - but I've actually been thinking about this lately, how there's a fine line between, as you said, sadism; and simply writing a good, heart-wrenching, necessarily painful-at-moments book.