When it comes to feeling sympathy, our emotion are hardwired to be triggered by the distress of others.
It can be tempting to avoid putting your characters (especially the ones you like) in too much pain and agony. Whether physical or mental, any kind of suffering can feel like a betrayal of characters you’ve become very fond of.
Unfortunately, if you don’t put them through the wringer their problems will seem minor and not worth worrying about.
Suffering doesn’t have to be pain and anguish, it can be embarrassment, frustration, humiliation, loss and a host of other things. It just has to be unpleasant.
Seeing the outcome of a difficult predicament, seeing the characters breakdown, bleed or fall apart is what makes the reader connect with them and ultimately feel sorry for them. And that’s when you’ve got them hooked. People can’t help but empathise with people who are really having a bad time of it.
If you don’t show them at their low point, the connection will be superficial at best.
Often, suffering is referred to as something that happened earlier in the story. We didn’t see it but the effect is that the character is now driven to do whatever it is they’re about to do. That’s pretty useless in most cases.
For the full effect on the reader they need to see the cause, the effect and the consequences. It should be graphic, visceral and as cruel as possible.
However, it’s worth remembering that obvious, clichéd representations of emotion won’t do much for a seasoned reader. Big fat tears rolling down someone’s cheeks will have a fraction of their potential effect if they are presented without context or reason.
The other thing to remember is that if the cause of the suffering is unfair, unreasonable, unjustified or undeserved, it adds to the reader’s sympathy levels. This is true across the board. If any character receives bad treatment they’ve done nothing to warrant, readers will feel for them even more. And if they suffer in an attempt to protect someone else, jackpot!
Of course, it’s also possible to abuse this fact and heap misfortune after misfortune on to your characters, turning the story into melodrama.
Suffering is best employed by showing the cause of the misery (so readers can judge its validity for themselves) and then spending a little time with the character as they suffer. This will not only allow the reader a vicarious emotional experience (depending on how good your writing is) but it will also reveal the kind of person the character is, as different people deal with suffering in their own way.
That said, one of the most powerful ways to use suffering to your advantage is to not show it, or at least to show a character trying to hide how much they’re hurting. More on that in the next post—Sympathetic Characters Part 3: Noble Souls.
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