Every writer was a reader first—and this piece right here, even more than the others, has been directly inspired by my personal reading experience. (For the curious ones, recent fiction I’ve gone through can be found here.)
Please note that I strongly believe in HEA (or, at the very least, a promising HFN), and I’ve been known to stop reading books with too much onscreen, gratuitous violence. Everything I’ve mentioned here was written with an understanding that you’re using your characters’ pain to bring together a better and stronger positive feeling at the end of the story for the reader. If that’s not your goal, you might want to skip this one.
Another important point (coming from a writer who regularly employs a considerable amount of romance plots in their copy) is that the ideas below do not apply if you’re writing bully romance or anything similar, for which the great world wide web has offered a responsive market in the past few years. In that sanbox, you get to follow other people’s rules and/or suggestions, and to make your own. More power to you.
#1 Characterization is key…
Not everybody will react the same way to the exact same scenario, and when you venture into character pain in your stories, the important part seems to be the character’s reaction after the ordeal is done. The resilient characters can be as fun to write as the ‘gentle’ ones, and it all depends on how much—if at all—they can change in regard with what they’ve gone through. To borrow (and paraphrase-cum-translate through memory) from one of my favourite writers, GG Kay—pain will come and it will be real, no matter how a person’s character or constitution responded to it. (And it was written from a physician’s perspective, so there’s that.) The exact same trauma—both physical and emotional—will result in completely different reactions in different people. Nope, nobody ever said (quality) characterization is easy.
#2 …as is plot.
There’s a market out there for torture porn fiction (not necessarily pornographic at all, mind you), and the amount of suffering you put your characters through, as well as the nature of it, depends on whether you’re doing it for the plot or because it’s a prerequisite in the market you’re trying to write for. You’re the only one who can decide what’s acceptable in your copy, but do try not to venture too far off field regarding your tone and/or genre.
#3 The better you know your genre(s), the safer your bet about character pain.
Similar to above, but with an added caveat—it’s not only about the genre, but the current market, too. Read in your field, read outside it, see where your personal sensibilities lie, and create your professional ones. If you can’t write about limbs being cut off sans anesthesia, don’t try to fit the modern crime genre. If you can’t write emotional suffering, don’t write family drama in any age. It’s as easy as that.
Also, if what I’ve glimpsed online about fiction marketing is right, you need to do your best to hint at the content of your fiction both with the cover and in the book blurb—using more general (as not to spoil things too much), but suggestive words which will resonate with the people you want reading your stories and scare away, say, people who think a little on-page blood is too much blood altogether.
Oh, and if you’re writing (classic) romance, please, please, don’t have onscreen rape, okay? Okay.
#4 You are not what you write (at least most of the time).
Yes, you can make a character suffer and still be a good person yourself. If not, most of my favourite writers should end up being genuinely bad people, and after years and years of reading their fiction, I’ve gotten the impression that they value the human life above all. Here’s hoping. With a side note that if you can’t make yourself write a scene you’ve imagined, there’s a realistic—but not definite—probability that you shouldn’t.
#5 Making a character go through a heavy ordeal doesn’t always mean making them lose their dignity.
No matter how popular it’s become in the past few decades in a few genres—genres I have, because of that, become quite weary of picking up. (More here.) You do you, just make sure to market your fiction accordingly (and, as a reader, check reviews of the classics—I’m looking at you, Outlander #1—before you go read them expecting them to be free of stupidity).
#6 Most readers are in it for the pain, anyway—in a controlled environment and with the promise of a happy ending…
Wait, how does this relate to anything I’ve written above? In the way that the reader, a lot of the times, wants to be worried about a character*, with the belief that they will pull through and be victorious at the very end. (Unless, you know, your genre itself explicitly notes that it’s inadvisable to have happy, recovered survivors. I’m looking at you, horror—from a safe distance, thank you very much). In other words, it’s all about the journey. Also known as ‘what’s the worst I can have happen to my character at this point of their lives’? The answer will not always be pleasant, but it will often help your fiction along.
Know your genre, know your readers, don’t go crossing your personal boundaries unless you’re positive you can live with the consequences, but do try not to write novels where nothing bad—or, at the very least, challenging—ever happens to a character. No matter what, I’d be the first person not to read that, either.
#7 …but most readers (have been) hurt, too…
And it’s a thing to remember both for the positive aspect of it, and the negative. They might be able to relate to the character and put their own experience against the character’s and come out victorious at the end, or they might relate to the character and find their suffering hitting too close to home and hate you for your fiction and your existence and your narrow little worlviews till the end of their days. What? Are you saying readers are in it for the rational reaction? Please.
#8 …and every reader is different.
That’s why there are (at the very least) four writers whose fiction I will never pick up again until I breathe because they’ve crossed the not-so-fine line for me in their books (some of them more than once, before I finally gave up on them).
On the other hand, what I consider laughable, some people will prepare a lynch mob for. (Including things I’ve already written about, and things I plan on writing about, in my fiction.) If you’re in this writing thing to (get) publish(ed), and you’re just starting out, like me, let’s hope there will be more readers coming our way who like our style of character torment, and less those who will be taken aback with the excess or the lack thereof (and leave blunt reviews stating exactly why on the sites which, apparently, make or break a book. I guess.).
And now excuse me while I go back to the scene which this post started as a break from—describing a werewolf character whining and spasming in the grass after being bitten by a rabid opponent. Jolly. Because that, apparently, hits the narrow line of things to write about that I’m not too scared of, but still find hard to do, and I’ve judged the novel will benefit from it.
We’ll let the final decision rest on the readers.
*And I can’t for the life of me find my original source on this, but I have a hunch it was KJ Charles at one point or another.