Vonnegut is brilliant–let’s not deny it. And one of his bits of writing wisdom is oft-quoted and apt:
Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
Of course I agree. If every story is happy fun times for the characters involved, there’s no conflict. The story exists because of the conflict–if each character had everything they wanted at the beginning of the story and never was unhappy for the duration, we wouldn’t have much of a story.
But I think the authorial resistance to this sage bit of writing advice is more complex than an aversion to sadism. It’s not that we want to avoid inflicting pain on our characters. Instead, we want to avoid inflicting pain on ourselves.
Each character is crafted from a bit of our world–whether we are inspired by our selves, our families, or our imagination, even the most dastardly villain originates in the deep recesses of our person. In a way, we play out aspects of our existence through our writing. By isolating and then breathing life into bits of our lived experiences, we process, we entertain, we explore.
While this method of character creation is fruitful, it comes at a cost. I am willing to bet that you simply love your characters. The protagonists. The antagonists. The random shopkeeper in chapter three. These characters are an extension of you, and it is easy to love them. They are your world and have been created by your hands.
And while it is natural that you want to protect them, you have to be willing to open yourself up to the possibility of being broken if you want to write a story that matters. Just like the quintessential dilemma of love–trusting another person with the most fragile parts of your self–you have to be willing to face utter despair on behalf of your characters if you want to write a book that means something.
The most insidious challenge here is not that your characters will have a hard time of things. Obviously, things will be hard for them. The most desperately difficult part of writing a story that matters is not that your characters will suffer–it is that you will suffer on their behalf. Because of them. Because you care about them.
It’s hard enough to get the word count. Facing down the despair can be harrowing.
But if you write your story from a comfortable distance–if your story cannot create agony and joy in even you–what is the likelihood that a reader will be moved? If Frodo did not risk death to return the one ring to Mount Doom, if Katniss was not chosen, if Scout was unaffected by sleepy old Maycomb, if there was no pain, would you care?
And while these stories are suspenseful and heart wrenching for the reader, the emotional resonance is amplified a hundredfold when you are the author. You have ultimate jurisdiction over the plot of the story–you could single-handedly rescue your charges from their agony and deliver them to a happily-ever-after. You could hand them the world.
Don’t allow yourself to be lured into making things comfortable. That emotional distance is safe, but it creates a hollow shell–the trappings of the story are there, but the soul has been snuffed out. If you are unmoved by your story, do you really think your reader will care?
And while, essentially, a willingness to be sadistic will create fiction–in order to truly create without hesitation you have to open yourself up to your own suffering. Allow yourself to be battered by your story. Care about your characters so much you cry. Be moody, be morose, be a masochist. And, of course, write.