Writers are notoriously cruel to their characters. Our job description is practically, “Killing and torturing people for a living.” An embarrassing amount of hours in our days are spent thinking about how we can make our characters’ lives worse. And yet we turn around and claim they’re our “precious, adorable babies whom we love ever so much!” Because, ya know, they are. You may walk into a bookstore and pick up the mildest, sweetest looking book out of the thousands, the cover glittered in pink and flowers and a girl with every tooth showing in a wide grin, white ribbons flowing from her hair. “What a pleasant looking book,” you say. And you may be right, but don’t be entirely fooled! That girl with ribbons in her hair certainly won’t be holding that grin for every page. No. She may cry, become angry, get hurt, all of the above. “That poor girl! How could the author be so cruel?” you think, even while turning to the next page. What spurs on this incessant character torturing, and for goodness’ sake, why do we want to read it?
I was just discussing The Hunger Games with Deborah and saying I didn’t know WHY I love those books. They’re dark, depressing, icky even, and yet that’s one of my favorite book series of all time. WHY?
My favorite scenes to write are the dramatic ones, whether they’re sad or scary or just full of action—I look forward to getting to those parts of my novels every single time. WHY?
Sometimes I like to go back and read one of my old stories and when I do I almost every time choose one of the sadder scenes. WHY?
If a movie makes me cry there’s a 99.8% chance I’ll love it. I want movies to make me cry. WHY???
One of my favorite quotes of Tolkien’s is from chapter 3 of The Hobbit:
“ Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have
and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to;
while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale,
and take a deal of telling anyway. ”
In our fiction we get bored with all the happy bits. We want to read about the uncomfortable and gruesome. The struggles and hardships and fears.
Why would we ever want to read about people suffering? Or to write about the characters we love being tortured and torn down?
Many hours of my life have been spent pondering this very question. Shouldn’t I be disturbed about enjoying uncomfortable and gruesome stories? I’m a very sunshiny person. I love pink and glitter and unicorns and poodles. Why ever would I want to read and write about dark things?
Well, I certainly don’t have all the answers, but all my musings have come up with this answer:
Life isn’t fluffy.
It doesn’t matter who we are or where we come from, life isn’t always sunshine and peaches. We’ve all struggled. We’ve all had bad days and shed tears and grown angry and messed up and gone through hard times. That’s a part of life.
We want our fiction to feel real, even if we don’t necessarily read realistic fiction. In The Hobbit they’re a company of dwarves and a wizard and a hobbit going off to slay a dragon inside a home made under a mountain. Not exactly the most realistic of plots, right? But a lot of us have “dragons” of our own that have tilted our world—health problems, a best friend moving away, a loved one dying.
Life isn’t an easy place, but when we read fiction and see the characters we love struggling as well, we can take their situations and mirror it with our own. We can get a new perspective of our hardships, we can sympathize with the characters and learn from them. Who wants to read about someone who has life handed to them on a silver platter and from birth to death they experience nothing but frolicking through fields of happiness? *gag* What kind of character would that be?
No, we want someone who doesn’t have it easy, who pushes and pushes past those struggles and grows with each step. In the Marvel movies Tony Stark AKA Iron Man starts out as nothing but a rich, bratty, spoiled guy who seeks nothing but to serve himself. But when his perfect little world flips on its head, he struggles and grows, and this man who has spent his days only ever thinking about HIM, is willing to sacrifice his very life to protect those he loves.
It is through the struggles that we grow. God allows hardships in our life to batter and shape us into His vessels. because He LOVES us and wants us to be the very best we can be. As writers, we throw curveballs at our characters for the very same reason—to form them into someone to look up to.
Life isn’t fluffy, sometimes it’s downright hard, but fiction helps us to understand our struggles, to mirror our lives with the characters’ and learn from them, to grow into the people God created us to be.
So yes, we writers torture our characters. But the moment that silver platter was snatched away from Tony Stark, he became loveable.