Over-the-Top Suffering

First off: Ogre Enchanted is out, loosed upon the world!

And I forgot to mention that I’ll be in Millbrook, New York, at the Merritt Bookstore on Saturday, October 27th, at 11:00 am. Hope to see any of you who live in the area and can make it!

Here’s a craft thing that I’ve been thinking about as I’ve begun revising Long-Ago Cima (which may not be the title in the end), my historical novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. I like concise writing, so I put my manuscript on a diet when I revise. Unneeded words must go!

And I find them in locutions like, She could see, He could hear, They could feel. Or can see, hear, feel, depending on tense. I write phrases like these without noticing, and I see them in the writing of others. But usually, if she, he, and they could, they did, which is what’s meant, and the word could is unnecessary, as in She saw, or He hears, and so on. Occasionally we need the word could, as in: Meredith started her training as a chocolate-pudding taster. Yes! She could pick out the deeper notes of the cocoa in the sample from the high mountains of the planet Ponso, and could taste the extra sweetness in the sample from the jungles of Ewel.

This is just one more detail to keep our eyes on!

Just saying, if any company is looking for a chocolate-pudding taster, I’m available.

On to the post.

On August 10, 2018, Melissa Mead wrote, Related to the “How can I make my characters suffer?” question, another online group I’m in is talking about authors who make their characters suffer TOO much, so it ceases to have meaning for the reader. Made me think about the time I showed a scene to a pro-author friend. She read it, looked grim, and just said “I hope the villain gets what’s coming to him.”

How do you know when you’ve gone too far in that direction?

A brief back-and-forth followed:

Sara: Maybe when everything that happens to them for a while is suffering? This may be hard to tell, but that’s the only guideline I can think of. Have you read villains who, despite their wickedness, you almost have to root for because they’re so clever and persistent, like at either defeating the MC or just staying alive in repeated dangerous situations? If you make a villain come out on top a lot but still have those justified bad things happening, the suffering should feel gradual. Or the suffering can be minor things, added up over time to be major. This applies to any character, too, obviously.

Melissa Mead: I do know that there’s at least one scene in my WIP that I wouldn’t be able to watch if it were on TV, but then, I scare easily. (I wasn’t trying to make it that way, but, well, serpent-demons do upsetting things.) I don’t know if it would be as upsetting for the typical reader.

At yesterday’s launch of Ogre, I was sharing my worries about the expulsion book with my poor audience–that it will contain too much suffering for middle-grade readers. (My deepest fear, really, is that my editor will say she doesn’t know any age it’s right for–too young for adult and young adult, too old for middle grade–except for kids between eleven-and-six-months and eleven-and-seven-months.) Interestingly, a middle-school librarian who was there said that the kids at her school can’t get enough of Holocaust books, so too much suffering may not be too much of a problem!

We may not need to worry about children, or most readers. They’re tough! It is possible that Melissa Mead’s worry (and mine) is merely one more anxiety that we writers find to torment ourselves with.

On the other hand, I have a confession: I rarely read novels these days because of the suffering, which I buy into too deeply. Even though I’m a very happy person, the suffering I create on the page comes from somewhere in me, and the suffering other writers put on their pages comes from depths within them. I don’t need to suspend my disbelief, I need to engage it!

I’m not sure if the villain is at the heart of Melissa Mead’s question. Seems to me it’s the nature of the MC and the intersection of main character and villain.

To take a cartoony example: suppose our villain likes to flay his victims. Being skinned alive is major suffering, I’d say. But suppose our main character is Lizzie, lizard-girl, and she grows new skin instantly. In fact, she enjoys a good flaying, which feels to her like having her back scratched.

The suffering vanishes. Alas, so does the tension. Unless the reader knows that Lizzie’s five-year-old brother hasn’t come into his super power yet. If the villain discovers Markie’s vulnerability, the boy is in for a lot of pain and possibly death. Lizzie has to protect him!

Now the reader suffers, but the suffering is more anticipation than the agony of the rupture of major blood vessels.

Obviously, suffering doesn’t have to be inflicted by a villain. As we’ve seen in recent weather events, nature can be its instrument. So can well-meaning characters, and that may be the worst suffering of all. Lizzie is babysitting Markie at an amusement park, and he is desperately eager to go on the Ferris Wheel. She’s a good sister; there’s no height requirement for the ride; the wind isn’t that strong; she’ll be right next to him; what could go wrong?

Everything. The wind picks up to gale force; the ride malfunctions; Markie, who loves it all, decides to unhook his harness before his sister can stop him–and he dies or is so injured he’ll never be the same.

I would put down the book.

But I’d miss what happens over time. Lizzie becomes a crusader against unsafe amusement park rides, and annual injuries and fatalities plummet. After a lot of self-examination she recognizes that she had been reckless with Markie’s safety, and she forgives herself. There will always be a scar, but she’s stronger for it, more thoughtful, more cautious.

If the writer wants to cheer us up entirely, she can make Markie survive and develop skills that compensate for his injury. His future is different than it would have been, but it’s bright.

Let’s return to our flaying villain and Lizzie. Suppose she has no super power, and she is seriously flayed. She’s getting medical attention, but she’s in terrible pain, and she’s blaming herself for failing to defeat the villain, for not wearing her armor, for being weak. The reader loves her, so he’s suffering, too.

What can we do to make the suffering bearable for her and the reader?

I’ve used this strategy many times: We give her qualities that don’t remove her suffering but make it somewhat bearable. She can know meditation techniques that allow her to get a little distance on the pain; her world view finds meaning in suffering as the route to a higher life; she’s confident that her inner strength will get her through this.

Other characters. Lizzie’s best friend’s face is the first thing she sees when she wakes up from her blackout, even if the villain is still on the loose. In The Two Princesses of Bamarre, without giving anything away, I use a disembodied voice to help Addie through her worst moments. If the suffering is tolerable to our MC, it will be bearable to our readers.

Reader knowledge can help, too. Lizzie’s worst fear when she blacks out is that the flaying villain got Markie, but the reader knows he’s okay.

Just saying, some of us–many of us–are too timid about bringing suffering down on our characters. Too little is at least as bad as too much. I’m not convinced that Melissa Mead’s reader’s grim response to her villain isn’t a good thing. We want our readers to feel strongly! Kudos to us when we achieve that.

And there is tragedy and readers who gobble it up. For them there is no such thing as too sad. The more hankies the better. We can give them what they want and feel good about it. We’re not creating misery in the real world. When we want to, we can go for it.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Here’s a link to the Wikipedia entry of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient times: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eruption_of_Mount_Vesuvius_in_79#Pliny_the_Younger. Write this history as a tragedy, which it was. Don’t leave a dry eye in the house.

∙ Write the same events but use the strategies in this post and others you may know to leaven the suffering. End with hope.

∙ If you are brave, write possibly the worst tragedy imaginable, a tragic outcome when it didn’t have to be that way, when everything that goes wrong is preventable and happens because of mistakes and the fatal character flaw in your main character, who is otherwise lovable with many fine qualities. Lizzie persuades two friends to join her on an expedition into the mountains of their kingdom, where the terrain is super dangerous and the caves are inhabited by sentient bears who hate humans. Bring it to a terrible conclusion.

∙ Change one thing in the prompt above. Create lots of suffering, but make it come out okay.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I’d been working on a novel for about two and a half years, and I’ve begun to query agents. Because of this, I’m a bit lost in my writing at the moment.
    I’ve always prided myself on having something to say, some story to tell, and I guess I still do. I write bits and pieces of this or that, little poems and scraps of dialogue in the notes section of my phone as I’m walking to class (which is actually a bit dangerous), but I can’t seem to find a character or a story to really hold onto.

  2. Elizabeth Anderson says:

    I got my first rejection letter today, from Brianne Johnson, who you mentioned in another post. Now I’m thinking, “What now?” I really want to move on and get my novel published some other way. Do you have any advice?

    • I’m sorry to hear about the rejection. The nice thing about novels vs short stories, though, is that you can usually send them to more than one place at once. Are there other editors or agents that you might want to query?

      If it helps any, you’re not alone. The novel I’m about to start shopping around again already has 27 rejections. I try to remember this quote from a writer friend: “Rejections are trophies. They’re proof that you had the guts to try something.”

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        There is self-publishing, which some on the blog have experience with. Would anyone like to weigh in?

        As for traditional publishing, it took me nine years of rejection to get an acceptance.

        • If you plan to self-publish, do lots of research. You will probably use KDP, which is amazon”s service, although there are a few other options such as watpad, smashwords, and draft-to-digital. You will need to learn about editing, cover design, formatting, and marketing. Know your goals before you start. Self-publishing is a marathon, not a sprint–be prepared to do a lot of work and probably publish many books before you start succeeding. You’ll want to think of it as a business, which includes keeping carefull accounts.
          That’s some general advice, you’ll want to do a lot more research. The Facebook group 20booksto50k is a good resource.

        • Echoing what Christie said, do your research before deciding anything. Self-publishing is an awesome path to take that can be extremely rewarding, but it’s SO, SO important to know what you’re getting into. If you want to be successful as a self-publisher (i.e. actually sell books to a fair amount of people, not just publish a book on Amazon to share with friends and family) you’ll essentially have to start a small business. Which may be what you want and what you’re ready for, but it’ll be a LOT of work, a lot of investment in time and often money, and a lot of learning. In self-publishing, you’ll have to do everything your self, or pay for trained professionals. This includes actually writing the book, copyediting, cover design, distribution, marketing, and all business administration tasks such as accounting. Unless you have experience with graphic design AND professional editing AND the myriad of software and programs it takes it actually create a book AND business, this will take a LOT of learning. Of course, it can be done and done extremely well; Joanna Penn, who runs the self-publishing advice blog thecreativepenn.com, is a sucessful self-published author with probably hundreds of thousands of readers, making a six figure income, and loving every moment of it. But if you poke around on her blog, you’ll see just how much work she put in to get where she is today, and how much work she puts in on a regular basis. (It’s a full time job for her.) So while self-publishing is a perfectly valid route to publication, it is NOT, by any means, an easy way out. If anything, I think it’s harder to be a sucessful self-published author than a traditionally published one, even accounting for all the rejections

          There are also a few caveats to this:
          1. If you don’t care about commercial sucess and just want to see your book published online and have copies for yourself and friends and family, self-publishing can be a great way. You can just upload a document, make a cover, and see your book on Amazon. However, making a profit or selling books to people who don’t already know you will probably be very difficult.
          2. Self-publishing now can affect your chances of being traditionally published in the future. It’s not always a dealbreaker, but definetely something they take into consideration. Agents generally won’t accept previously-published manuscripts (barring a few exceptions), so if you self-publish a book, you won’t be able to submit it to agents. Having a bad sales history will also affect your chances as an author as a whole, since once you publish you’ll lose your “debut author” status, and a bad track record is worse than no track record.

          But don’t let this scare you! If self-publishing is truly what you want, then you should go ahead, put in the work, and give it a try. But no matter which route you take, please don’t give up. Sucess rarely comes right at the beginning.

  3. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    Does anyone have any advice on how to make two characters relationship believable in a short amount of time? I have two characters, a boy and a girl, who are working to stop an empire from taking over. On one of the missions they’re sent on, the building explodes and everyone thinks the boy is dead. However, the girl refuses to give up on him and goes to very extreme lengths to get him back, which ends in several near death experiences. I want the reader to understand why the girl is doing this, and be just as hopeful as she is that she can get him back. Does anyone have any advice on how to make the girl’s motivation believable, if she hasn’t known the boy for more then a year?

    • An important part of this may not just be the relationship between the two characters. If you’ve shown that the girl is selfless, hopeful and possibly reckless before, it’ll be more believable that she acts that way again. Also, if the boy has a habit of getting himself into dangerous situations but always remaining more-or-less safe, the girl’s reasoning will make sense. As for the relationship itself, to give a foundation on those two things, have them laugh and have fun despite the circumstances. Even if you only have a limited time to show their relationship, just a few scenes can cement that connection. Use their surroundings in this, because that way it’ll feel real.

      • Kit Kat Kitty says:

        Thanks so much! You actually just described the two characters. The girl has had some warrior training, and will run head on into situations that should be thought through at times, and the boy has the special talent of finding himself in trouble. This really helps!

  4. Here’s an odd question:

    I have an MC has adventures Walter Mitty style. I’ve been switching my paragraph spacing from 1.5 to single to help signify the changes from conscious to subconscious…does anyone have a better/clearer-to-the-readers idea for this? I’d rather not italicize.

    Also, happy NaNoWriMo!

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