How should your characters be hurt?
Recently I caught the season finale to a show that finds needy families and then rebuilds or replaces their homes. In this case, the father in the family seemed to be a great coach and a great person, but he was suffering from ALS, a disease that will take his life within a year or two. He also had a six-year-old son, who was as cute as could be, who suffered from spina bifida, which has left him paralyzed. The show was a tear-jerker from start to finish as we saw the courage, the nobility, and the real suffering in these people.
Orson Scott Card has said that when we tell a story, our viewpoint character should usually be the person who is in the most pain. Very often that pain is caused by others, but in the real world the truth is that so many of us suffer from self-imposed weaknesses, or else from ailments and mishaps for which no one is to blame. It’s simply misfortune.
As authors, we are typically hesitant to write about characters who suffer from horrific ailments. After all, we don’t want to be accused of being maudlin. Yet one of the best ways to gain a reader’s sympathy is to put a character in pain.
There are a couple of rules that you have to follow, though, in order for this to work. First, look at the cause of the pain. If another character is causing your protagonist pain, your character needs to confront the source. That means that if a boss is abusing women, your female protagonist needs to talk to him directly or even take legal action in order to resolve the issue. In fact, you can create a perfectly satisfactory tale in which your protagonist commits murder in order to put an end to the abuse.
If the pain is caused by nature—by an illness, for example—the character still must do all he or she can to resolve the problem.
If the pain is self-inflicted, the reader isn’t likely to give a hoot. At least here in the United States, we expect people to take responsibility for their own actions. Let’s say that you write a story about a fellow who likes smoking crack so much that he robs the home of a friend and accidentally shoots his friend’s son in the process. Are we going to care about that protagonist’s pain? Absolutely not.
Self-inflicted pain is weak—unless the pain motivates the protagonist to change. In that case, the protagonist must recognize his problem, confess to himself or some other character and actually carry through with his plan to change.
Whatever problem I have—whether terminal disease or sociopathic neighbor or anything else—the problem must be faced with courage. This means that, generally speaking, your character can’t cry about it, no matter what the source of pain.
Any time that a character breaks down, we as an audience may cast judgment upon that character. Different cultures have widely varying standards about who should cry and when. I used to have a Latin American/Italian friend who would cry about anything—the weather, his shoes being too tight, a girlfriend that left him, or the people he’d had to kill when he was in the CIA.
In other cultures, crying is all but forbidden. Here in Utah, I recently saw a little boy, perhaps three, who began crying after he tripped on the sidewalk. His mother gave him an angry look and said, “Cowboy up, Michael. Cowboy up!” In this part of the country, that’s an order to “Quit crying and get back on the horse that threw you.” The boy kept crying, so his mother slapped his face. She wasn’t going to tolerate a son who bawled in public.
So we tend to judge people who cry, admiring those who show great tolerance for pain, and disliking those who don’t.
We love a cancer patient who faces her disease stoically, battling it all of the way. We love seeing Forrest Gump manfully face his mental disabilities, and so viewers flocked to the theaters for that show by the tens of millions. Yet an equally brilliant story about someone who is suffering, say, from alcoholism won’t fare nearly as well, particularly if the protagonist doesn’t face his problems in a heroic fashion.
Which brings me to what I call a “deadly combination” in storytelling: the protagonist who suffers from self-inflicted pain and then whines about it.
For me at least, that combination will kill any story. I not only don’t empathize with such characters, I actively detest them, and I suspect that the majority of others do, too. Your character should be admired and likable.
So learn to “put the hurt” on your characters. It will make your readers empathize with them more fully. But be careful when you show how your character reacts to that pain.
“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”