Torturing a favourite character

In writing, they say to kill your darlings. That doesn’t typically mean that all characters should die, but, y’know, it’s an option.


It’s a strange balance, reading about a fictional character. If we like the character, we naturally want them to overcome their strife, defeat the villain(s) and find happiness. But if the character is always being conveniently saved from bad situations (e.g. by passing out, then being told later how they were rescued), that’s generally considered a weak story. Deus ex machina endings aren’t well-regarded nowadays. That’s because such convenience is an outside event being enacted on the character. If Hero McAwesomepants is rescued by someone else, or if the danger turns out to be nothing, that means McAwesomepants isn’t actually doing anything. We don’t buy books or go to movie theatres for the privilege of seeing nothing happen.

No, we want to see McAwesomepants fight until their body can fight no more, or grieve for lost allies, or grapple with inner demons. Maybe all three at once! We want to experience pain and victory and redemption from a safe passenger seat. So when we like a character, that often means that horrible things keep happening to them. That character is somehow satisfying to empathise with, even when they’re suffering. Especially when they’re suffering. That pain means they’re going through something important (usually).

Some stories stay as far away from convenience as possible: they have suffering and conflict loaded into every scene. Some argue that this is realistic. Real life doesn’t have a cosmic author wincing at our predicament and writing a nice, easy solution. Real life doesn’t have limits. But does this make for an enjoyable story? Is schadenfreude — the enjoyment of someone else’s suffering — really just a simple formula for a good story? This is a matter of personal taste, really. I’ve given up on critically acclaimed books because they just seemed to pile misery on top of misery, with no reward in sight. Whereas some folks like having their heart broken and their favourites killed off. Maybe character torture is a seasoning and some folks just prefer salt pickles so intense they make your jaw hurt.

I’ve been thinking about this since reading the teaser blurb for the next Temeraire book. In the ongoing struggles of Captain Laurence and his dragon partner Temeraire, I think there’s a good balance of hope and suffering. They live as military pawns in the Napoleonic era, which means few material comforts and many battles — but much potential to change the future. They are imposed upon by governmental bodies that are difficult to reason with, and they’re trying to reason with whole societies. But into the 6th book (the farthest I’m caught up), Laurence is showing more and more psychological effects of his struggles. As a character, he seems tired from all that he’s been through, and he’s less inclined to stand up for his dignity or his personal desires. It’s a realistic way to react to long years of war and injustice — but as a reader, is that what I want? I’m not sure. I want the characters to be happy, but not easily so. I want Laurence and Temeraire to achieve their goals, without bleeding so much that the whole story is stained red.

I can only decide that this is what good fiction does. It makes you think about conflict and characters until you’re confused and your heart hurts. That’s not as simple as killing off a few darlings. Balance is the key.

3 Comments on “Torturing a favourite character”

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