May 24, 2013

Make Your Characters Suffer?

swan princeby C. Margery Kempe

My brother and I had been watching a lot of Austen and Dickens while I was still in NY. He’s been especially happy to see the era of furniture he’s been buying for our 1810 house (which is slowly coming together, though there’s lots of work to be done). Seriously: in Sense & Sensibility (the BBC miniseries version from a couple of years ago, which he insists on calling Sense and Sensible Shoes) there was a dresser exactly like the one he bought at auction a couple weeks ago.

Day made for him!

For me, I’ve been thinking about why I love these 19th century novels (and miniseries) and I’ve decided that it’s the suffering. The characters go through so many reversals and terrible things and unfortunate mishaps that when the end comes — for those who survive! — the pay off is that much sweeter.

Think about it: poor Elinor! Not only does she have to put up with her mother’s and sister’s histrionics and impracticalities, the death of her beloved father and the poky little cottage in Devon with the chimney that smokes — but she also has to put up with the insufferably asinine Miss Lucy Steele who flaunts her secret engagement with Edward Ferrars, the man with whom Elinor felt an instant connection. Surrounded by people who injure her genteel sensibilities (the book is so much more vicious about their neighbours and relatives), it’s a struggle to keep finding the will to live.

And worst of all, she is not appreciated! Everyone dismisses her: the only one who recognises her worth is the similarly suffering Colonel Brandon, hopelessly in love with her sister. When they both finally get happiness, it’s almost more a relief than a joy. Their suffering is over!

Likewise most Dickens’ characters. Poor Nicholas Nicholby — that horrible school! The horrible uncle (played with real smug cruelty by Christopher Plummer in the recent version) who torments his entire family and the poor, similarly suffering Madeline Bray. His life has ups and downs: no sooner does he win a respite than he is thrust once more into horror. You know by the end he will come out all right, but this is Dickens, so not everyone will make it there with him (sob! Poor Smike!).

There’s something engaging about putting your characters through the wringer. I need to make mine suffer more . Do you like to see characters face a lot of heartache before getting their happy outcome?

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  • LizEverly

    Oh yes! They need to be tortured. It’s about the tension right? You’ve got to keep it cranked up. Great post!

    Reply to LizEverly
    • Post authorcmkempe

      Yeah, I agree 🙂

      Reply to cmkempe
  • Elizabeth Shore

    I agree! Make them sweat for what they want. It’s that much sweeter when they achieve their goals. I read an “on writing” article once that said for maximum impact, put your characters in an impossible situation and then make it even worse. Ha! If that doesn’t crank up the suffering (and tension – you’re so right, Liz) I don’t know what does. Great post, Margery!

    Reply to Elizabeth Shore
    • Post authorcmkempe

      I thinking need to do a lot more to make them suffer. Harden my heart.

      Reply to cmkempe
  • elfahearn

    I torture my heroines. They pay a terrible price for appearing in my novels, but as you say, the more I make them suffer the sweeter the HEA at the end. And readers of romance always know there will be that payoff, so they’ll stick with a novel just to see how that HEA can ever rise out of the mess.

    Reply to elfahearn
    • Post authorcmkempe

      I’m itching to work on the medieval now because oh, will there be pain!

      Reply to cmkempe
      • madelineiva

        I have to work on this. On one hand, I try to have too much bad stuff going on at the very beginning (although I’ve seen Mary Janice Davidson and Kristan Higgins pull it off).

        On the other hand, I hate to have my main characters suffer. Hate it.

        On the third hand, I’ve noticed that some authors (Charlaine Harris comes to mind) who make their characters suffer, but then the characters don’t feel it much. Well — we’re told they do, but we don’t see it/smell it/taste it so much — and then they move on.


        Reply to madelineiva
  • Post authorcmkempe

    I’ve come to realise most of my characters are concerned with problem solving, not as much with suffering. Less thinky, more feel!

    Reply to cmkempe

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