Writing as Sadism

Your characters should suffer.

I know. You love your characters. They’re the beautiful fictional beings whose quirks you know inside and out. They’re your friends, and you wouldn’t want your friends to suffer.

The truth is, your characters want you to do horrible things to them. They would never admit it, because just like real people, they are averse to pain and conflict. But deep down, in the core of their fictional being, they’re aware of something primal about storytelling:

“If I suffer, my audience will feel sympathy for me, and they will become more strongly attached to me.”

Let’s say you have two toddlers going to the zoo. The first is a toddler, who we’ll call Brian, says something funny about the penguins. His father laughs. They go get corndogs, see some more animals, and head home. Bryan sleeps in the car on the drive back.

Now, let’s think about a second toddler. We’ll call him Max. Max is at the zoo with his family, but gets separated when he stops to watch the kangaroos, and his brightly colored child tether suffers from a defect, causing his family not to notice that he’s not following along with the group.

Max looks around and can’t find his family. He sees somebody that almost looks like his mother, but as he walks up to her, she turns around and reveals that she’s someone else. He frantically wanders around, calling out for his parents & his big sister. It starts to get dark, not because it’s getting late, but because storm clouds are rolling in. It rains, soaking Max. He starts to sniffle. Then, lightning and thunder. He’s bawling, alone, and surrounded by strangers who don’t notice him as they run to get cover from the storm.

When I say that you should do horrible things to your characters, that doesn’t mean that happy endings are off the table. Quite the opposite. If Max goes through a compelling enough ordeal, the desire from the audience for him to be swept up by his mother, wrapped in a towel, and given a fudgecicle will be greater.

Much like how we feel pleasure from seeing our friends overcome obstacles, we enjoy watching fictional characters overcome adversity.

Go ahead, be cruel to your characters. Whip them. Beat them. Make them write bad checks.

Do it because you love them.

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