Making Our Characters Suffer for Entertainment and Profit

Struggle and sacrifice are the primary engines that drive both tension and the reader’s momentum through the plot. After all, a goal easily achieved is no victory at all. As the character struggles through the rising action towards the climax to their goals, it is the duty of the writer to present obstacles at every turn. When this concept is taken to an extreme, we get the Fates are Sadists trope.

In some stories, the entire world seems to conspire to drag the character through Hell. No matter what the characters do, there is a new, bigger problem as a result. As Jim Butcher put it, if your character jumps into a pit to escape pursuit, there better be snakes at the bottom. Though effective, constant use of the trope may draw attention to the fourth wall, and in some cases break it entirely. Once this happens, tension will escape through the breach as the reader’s suspension of disbelief is tested.

In order to avoid this pressure on the reader, I have found it necessary to couch each blow of the fates in the terms of the story. The character jumping into a random pit with snakes at the bottom is happen-chance. If the villain stocked the pit trap with snakes, it is man-versus-man conflict. If the protagonist put the snakes in the pit in an attempt to catch the antagonist, but ended up having to use the pit himself knowing the snakes were down there, it is a beautiful dramatic reversal.

To ensure the strongest emotional reaction in my readers, I have found it necessary to make sure that my characters’ responses to their tribulations reflect a heroic nature consistent with their characterization. Though it may be realistic for the protagonist to break down into a blubbering emotional mess, fiction isn't about realism. Instead, we look for paragons of strength and courage to bolster our own spirits and will as we face the everyday challenges of our own life. I echo David Farland on this one; having your character cry prevents your audience from doing so.

In order to maintain the primary promise to our reader, it is the writer’s responsibility to ensure that there is a satisfying emotional payoff to the struggles of the story. In the terms of the Fates are Sadists trope, this means that what was lost must be regained and the hard fought victories must be won. If the protagonist’s family is slaughtered and his home is destroyed in the opening scenes, he must find a new family and make a new home for himself by the end of the story. In addition, the value of the victory must be equal to or exceed the magnitude of the sacrifices made and struggles faced. We read books for the hope they represent, a belief that hardship and perseverance will eventually be rewarded.


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