In my teens and early 20s, the stories I wrote were even more melodramatic than I was. Infidelity, drug problems, and dreadful parenting were commonplace among my characters. I hadn’t experienced many of the circumstances I wrote about, and therefore wasn’t able to comprehend the potential impact these experiences might have on a real human being. Like small children who overload on sugar cereal because their taste buds aren’t developed enough to appreciate subtlety or nuance, I gorged on tragedy and distress. I couldn’t get enough.
As writers, we know intuitively that we must experience life to write about it. Travel to foreign lands. Taste unusual foods. Fall in love. Have our hearts broken. But how far must we go to tap into our creative voices? The once enchanting notion of the writer as alcoholic genius living a glamorous yet lonely existence due to his or her internal demons has, for the most part, evolved to the point where we accept that one can be a talented and productive writer without dying alone in a dark room above the bar in a seedy Paris neighborhood. We’ve come a long way, Baby.
However, the fact remains: to write about joy, fear, pain, or sadness, we must experience all of it. Repeatedly. But just how much suffering must we endure for the sake of our art? And how much suffering must we inflict upon our characters for the sake of the story?
Writers – and other artists – often seek emotional solace in their work. If a painful experience can be redeemed in the form of a compelling character or storyline, it wasn’t all for naught; something of greater value came from that suffering. I have found this to be true in my own life. My current novel-in-progress was born during a difficult emotional time. I pored all of my sadness and anxiety into creating others who shared my pain and helped to carry the burden of my distress. And I am prouder of this novel than anything I have written to date. Would I elect to go back and experience that difficult period all over again? Of course not. But neither would I erase it from my life. From my pain came something beautiful.
But what about these characters we burden? While conflict is an essential ingredient to any story, we writers mustn’t become complacent to the suffering our characters experience at our hands. For instance, we mustn’t assign someone as “broken-hearted” as indifferently as we assign him brown hair or a love of sushi. Broken-hearted is not an attribute, but an all-encompassing state of being: heart, mind, body. It should never be taken lightly.
Admittedly, heartbreak has been on my mind lately. As I write this post, I am smack dab at the center of the sadness, disappointment, and sense of loss that go with it. One of the most important relationships of my life has very recently come to an end, or at least an end to this phase of it. I wouldn’t wish this kind of grief on anyone, yet I compel my characters to experience even worse. The difference, however, between my 16-year-old writer self and my 41-year-old writer self is that I understand much better now the repercussions of my deeds. I can much better distinguish between the subtle flavors and textures that make up an emotion, that drive us to action or reaction.
So. How much suffering must we endure for the sake of our art? And how much suffering must we inflict upon our characters for the sake of the story?
My personal rule of thumb: Suffer only as much as necessary to experience a full life. Make your characters suffer only enough to let them be who they are.