It is a truth universally acknowledged that characters in novels, especially in mysteries, thrillers, crime and horror MUST SUFFER.
I mean, yes, we like to read about nice things happening to nice people, but we obviously love reading about awful things more. Even better is the THREAT of awful things, after we’ve seen something awful already happen.
Now, you might be thinking to yourself, well, duh. Of course! Of course Harry Potter needs to be an orphan with an evil wizard out to kill him. Of course the silent patient in The Silent Patient starts off by murdering her husband. Of course the girl in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo comes from a heinously abusive childhood and has…erm…problems.
But writing suffering requires inhabiting the suffering
As any author knows, to write effectively, it is often necessary to inhabit the character and their world. If they’re eating a slice of thick chocolate cake, congratulations, as an author, you can imagine the sweet goodness to your heart’s content as you describe every smooth, buttercreamy bite.
But then you must also write the hard stuff. The heartache. The illness. The death. Or all this happening to a person your character loves more than life itself.
I have a hard time making my characters suffer. I realize I don’t want to be in their heads when they learn they have an incurable disease, or their soul mate just jumped off Triboro Bridge. I don’t want to have them OD, or get hit by a car, or get stabbed, shot, or watch everything they own go kablooey in a fiery blaze.
I write around these moments in my first and even second drafts. Then, when I know exactly what needs to be done, I sit down and do it, with my heart hurting the entire time. I sleep badly afterward.
So, why do it? Why go through that as an author?
That’s the million dollar question, ain’t it? For the sake of the story. For the sake of letting readers live through the horrors vicariously, so they can then turn back to their normal (by comparison) lives and feel safe. Certainly that’s why I read.
But maybe there’s more to it than even that. It’s possible that we write to exorcise these fears out of ourselves. I’m not going to write about a person stepping on a mine because that’s not a general fear of mine. I WILL, however, write about a child running away, or abuse, or deaths of loved ones because those are MY fears. That’s why I have trouble sleeping afterward. But after that is done, I feel better. I think…
Back to the drawing board… and yes, in my current WIP, I’m going much too soft on my main character. And I know it. And I’m bracing myself for the fix.
How about you? How do you handle suffering in your novels? Or, what novel have you read that showed you the way in handling something difficult?
Let me know below or on Facebook or Twitter.
Her short stories appear in the Bouchercon 2023 Anthology, A Stranger Comes to Town: edited by Michael Koryta, Secrets in the Water, After Midnight: Tales from the Graveyard Shift, River River Journal, Snowbound: Best New England Crime Stories 2017, and 1+30: THE BEST OF MYSTORY.
When not writing, Emilya works as a visual artist and reads massive quantities of psychological thrillers, suspense, and crime fiction. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family.
Emilya, I too find my character’s suffering much milder in a first draft. I get progressively tougher with each revision until I think I’ve hit the right place between fear or terror or pain that the reader can tolerate. It’s definitely a balancing act.
Yes! Except I also have to throw in how much I can tolerate :-). There’s definitely been books I stopped reading because the author got too carried away with the whole terror, pain, and suffering aspect. I was generally okay with horror and gore for some reason, maybe because horror often deals with fantastical situations. I can read about Prometheus having his liver eaten by an eagle for all eternity because that’s not really relatable. The more realistic stuff is harder to take