Today's post is made of 100% recycled materials from 2011. Dr. Dina is out of the office, but she'll be back soon with more medical writing goodness. We have lots to cover this year - drowning, medications, fighting...there's lots we can talk about. For now, though, enjoy this blast from the past. - DJ
Originally posted somewhere (I honestly can't remember where) in April, 2011. Apparently we had a theme.
Continuing with our theme of Character Torture 101, I bring you "Make It Hurt."
I don't get why slapstick is funny. I never have. Sure, it's funny when someone who deserves a little comeuppance falls flat on their face, but general Three Stooges-type pratfalls and kicks in the balls and so on…? I just don't get that. Of course, I don't get why Will Farrell, Jim Carrey, or Ricky Gervais are funny either.
Eddie Izzard I get, but I digress.
Laughter is a documented response to pain. I should know – it's my own response. When something physically hurts, I laugh, so I suppose there's a correlation there between laughing at pain and laughing when we see someone get hurt (especially if they were doing something stupid just before the kick in the balls or board to the face). I used to think I was the only woman in the world who laughed during painful physical examinations and medical procedures and so on, because surely that's not normal. If something hurts, the natural response is to cry, right? Or yelp? Or protest with an "ouch!"
Something. Not laughing.
Pain can also be addictive. There's a fine line between pleasure and pain, and the chemicals/hormones that signal whether something is pleasurable or painful can often be deliberately confused. There's even certain medical conditions termed "aldegonics" in which pain is experienced as pleasure.
What's all this have to do with torturing characters in writing?
Because it's fun. Pleasurable.
Or, to quote John Mellencamp, it hurts so good.
It's not only fun putting characters in impossible situations – torturing them, essentially – but it's equally fun watching them get out of them. Seeing what they do. What they come up with to MacGyver their way out of whatever situation they're now faced with.
Yeah, that's awesome.
What's equally awesome is torturing a character you know your audience loves. This is the best part of the whole thing, and the most delicate.
See the part about pratfalls and slapstick. Sure you might get a laugh, but if your readers don't care about the torture you inflict on the character, you might as well just get out the pies.
People have to care about/connect with a character in order for the torture to mean anything. If no one cares about the torment that character is facing, then your scenario is pointless.
Here's an example. Say you have three beloved characters and they're all about to do something exciting. Then a fourth character comes in, and before he can say "hi, guys!" he's flattened by a semi.
The other three characters are horrified because they just saw a dude they might know get run over by a huge truck, but the readers aren't horrified at all because they didn't know the guy. Sure, it might be a shock because it was unexpected, but they didn't care about the character.
Now, if you do the same to one of the characters you've come to care about (I'm looking at you, George R. R. Martin….), your reader is going to feel that loss – that hurt/pain/torture – EVEN if there's no real affect on the characters involved.
Character torture is complicated and delicate. You can't simply torture for torture's sake (okay, yes you can, but where's the fun in that?). There has to be something at risk – whatever that might be is up to you as the writer. It could be something as simple as a treasured object to something as serious as that character's existence.
Making your characters cry and hurt is one thing. Making your readers scream and cry along with them is something else.
That's truly why we torture the characters, you know. Because really, we're torturing you.