I started throwing myself into creative writing in 2005. I was fourteen, didn’t really have a lot of friends and didn’t know how to make them (still don’t, honestly, but I’ve been fortunate to make quite a few awesome ones all the same in the last few years). Writing was the common ground I needed to connect with people–even if they were only (initially) over an Internet forum. That said, almost all of my friends today are fiction writers, or at least people I met through some writing-related activity.
Writing has been (and still is) pretty much my life. (How Kristoff in Frozen is with ice? Is pretty much me with creative writing. And yes, I did look really hard for a way to include this gif.)
But there’s something that’s started to bug me.
Given that writing has determined so much of what I do and what circles I hang around in, I’ve come to be pretty familiar with the typical writer jokes. “Be nice to you or I’ll put you in my novel and kill you.” Or “If my characters were real they’d form an angry mob and come after me, that is if any of them were still alive.” Or the cracks about how torturing a character is “character development.”
And to some degree, this is how I wrote for years too. I wrote a character, and my friends wrote characters, and we threw them into a story that barely had a point beyond presenting a stadium to beat the tar out of these fictional people. Why? Because it was fun, and after all, that’s what you do, right? You beat up your characters. No one and nothing gets hurt. No harm, no foul.
But over the last year or two I’ve switched my stance.
Now, when I can tell an author is beating up their character just for the sake of beating them up, I get annoyed. It feels like the author is intruding on their story by venting their own pent-up frustration (or sick, twisted, sadistic urge to hurt something) on someone who did nothing wrong (yes, I know they’re fictional). And I don’t like the author reminding me of their control-freak tendencies while I’m just trying to read a story.
This isn’t to say I don’t have a morbid sense of humor (I work with a taxidermist…). I can appreciate (sometimes) a good dark comedy. I found elements of Sweeney Todd and Cabin in the Woods to be hilarious, and Pushing Daisies is one of my favorite TV shows (may it rest in peace). However these are all crafted and built to include some element of dark humor into their story. I knew from the start what I was getting into. Not to mention Tim Burton is a master at blending the macabre with humor through a witty remark or a deadpan reaction, as is Bryan Fuller (Pushing Daisies, Dead Like Me). They can both pull of their respective quirks with panache.
Violence–even torture–is also sometimes necessary in a story. Different stories call for different elements and themes and atmospheres and angles. That’s what makes story so amazing; it can be used to communicate such a huge variety of ideas and themes, or even just be a reminder that the reader isn’t alone.
What I am saying is that we, as writers, should strive to have a reason for everything we include in our stories. Is having an in-depth torture scene of the protagonist really needed? There are probably times where the answer is yes (though I’ve never actually read a story that does this). But if the writer is merely wanting to hurt their character for the sake of hurting their character, perhaps the writer needs to be re-evaluating where their motive for writing the story in the first place actually lies.
What and for whom are they really writing for?