Writing Lesson: Suffering

I’m a storyteller. You put me in a group of people and I’ll tell stories to avoid awkward silences. You leave me alone and I’ll write, read, watch, or make up my own stories. About the only time I can get the story part of my brain to shut off is if I’m listening to music, and even that is no guarantee.

My husband is analytical. He’s the researcher, the studier, the teacher in the family. He taught himself how to program computers and now he’s teaching himself to be a preacher. He loves to analyze everything. We’ve had lively discussions about Star Trek, Chuck, Rambo, Godzilla, the Apprentice, Metallica, Downton Abbey, and of course theology.

Metal_gear_solid_5_ground_zeroes1

Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes

Both of us are Metal Gear Solid fans. That’s a video game, fyi. As far as I’m aware, this story started in the 90’s with Solid Snake as the main character. He appeared in five games. His father, Big Boss, was the villain in several of those games. Big Boss is the main character in 2 games, a demo, and the up and coming Phantom Pain. The story is complex, riveting, unique, and moving. As you play, you start to put the pieces together of how Big Boss became the bad guy you face as Solid Snake. You realize he wasn’t always evil. In fact, he was an honorable and good man for many years until one too many betrayals by the US government and people he trusted drove him to the dark antagonist we encounter as Solid Snake.

Being the fan boy and girl we are, we have spent hours playing this game and hours discussing the plot, characters, and unraveling the complex threads of the story. I stand in awe at Hideo Kojima’s ability to move me from anti-Big Boss to feeling very sympathetic towards him and what he becomes. As his story unfolds and you see everything he goes through, all the men he loses, and the betrayals he faces, you begin to understand how and why a man could become such an antagonists.

Discussing our favorite video game, my husband said this: To tell a good story you need great characters, and to have great characters you need great suffering, and to have great suffering you need context.

Big Boss context is war. From WWII, to Vietnam, to the Cold War, including children soldiers, his context is the battlefield. He suffers betrayal by his government which leads him to kill his mentor. He’s betrayed by everyone he counts a friend. He loses soldiers in useless battles. He has been trained to be a weapon and then is shunned because he is that weapon. This betrayal is his suffering. This context and this suffering creates a great character. Big Boss has three sons. The least of his three sons goes through similar sufferings at the hand of his government, but he is able to overcome them in the end. This creates a juxtaposition between Solid Snake and his father Big Boss. This allows you, the viewer, to see a mirror image of one man going bad and one man going deeper and stronger.

200_sTheir story reminds me of Lore and Data in Star Trek:NG. Two brothers created in the exact image of their father, one is evil and one is good. Big Boss and his sons are that way. Solid Snake is forced to destroy both his brothers who take on the evil of their father.

As a storyteller, I found my husband’s analysis of what makes a good story to ring true. A good story has to have good characters. But what makes a good character? Suffering. It is what they go through and how they react that we are interested in. We want to see them suffer because that’s something we can all relate to. From a child who loses a parent, is bullied, bullies, to soldiers, mothers, and growing old, we have all suffered. That suffering and how we react to it is what makes us who we are. Whether good or evil, it’s suffering that paves the path we are walking.

That suffering needs a believable place to happen. That’s our context. It’s not so much about being in space, or on the battlefield, or traveling through time, as it is creating the suffering which makes sense. A princess forced to live a life of ease is not suffering, but a princess trapped in a betrothal to a man she’s never met is suffering. A boy adopted into a wealthy home after living on the streets isn’t suffering. But that same boy now in a new home who discovers his friends aren’t all they seem, and then finds himself in a battle for his soul is suffering. Context enriches the suffering of your characters. It gives you a structure to guide suffering the rest of us can get.

Marcus Luttrell, the Lone Survivor

Marcus Luttrell, the Lone Survivor

Think about the stories that stick with you. Think about the characters that stick with you. Harry Potter sticks with us because every year of his life the suffering ratchets up a notch. The Hunger Games don’t just deal with suffering at the hands of oppressive governments, but the psychological suffering of Katniss as she becomes a darker and darker character. To this day, I’m haunted by Henry in The Time Traveler’s Wife. He suffered his whole life and even suffered in his death. In real life, we think about the Holocaust. Those stories of great suffering continue to reverberate through history. Think about the haunted look on a soldiers face in Vietnam when his country couldn’t back him. Look in the eyes of Marcus Luttrell knowing he was the only one of his buddies to survive. Suffering is what connects us.

Do you use suffering to help us bond with your characters? Are you afraid to put your characters through the fire? Remember the Bible teaches that we are refined in a fire to clear away the dross. God uses suffering to make us more like Christ. Suffering burns away pride, self-reliance, and hardness leaving soft gold shimmering behind. In antagonists, suffering brings bitterness, blame, self-protection, and self-love creating a monster.

Suffering is one of the best ways to create believable characters, both your protagonist and antagonists. I’m pretty good at making my heroes suffer, but I think I need to start working on my villains a bit more.

Refiners-Fire

Just an FYI:

Metal Gear Solid is rated M for mature.

Harry Potter is PG – PG13.

Hunger Games is PG 13.

Time Traveler’s Wife is rated R.

Star Trek: NG is PG.

Chuck is PG-13.

Rambo is R.

Godzilla is PG-13.

The Apprentice is PG-13.

Metallica is PG-13.

Downton Abbey is PG-13.

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10 thoughts on “Writing Lesson: Suffering

  1. This was marvelous!!! I’ve honestly been blessed with minimal suffering in my life and so it is always a stretch to cause it to happen to my characters. Good reminder if why I mustn’t play nice with my little world!

  2. Great essay about the benefits of suffering. I am glad that as a real live human I can discern the fact that I don’t have to be shot to know that it hurts, really bad. Therefore I don’t need to suffer to know it isn’t any fun.

    But my characters are a different story. Ha ha.

  3. So glad I reserved my comments until after reading this:). I couldn’t agree more! I may or may not be “borrowing” from this for an upcoming post I am supposed to write on a related subject.

      • In our brief conversation you made a contrast between a character needing flaws and a character needing to suffer. My thoughts at the time were that if a character suffered and always made the right choices then we who are fraught with flaws may have a hard time relating to them. Suffering has its meaning in helping us get rid of dross. I would argue that a good character would desire to respond appropriately, but may sometimes fail. This gives opportunity to grow, learn forgiveness, consider how we can do better, etc. The quick conversation at a time that didn’t lend itself to further discussion left me wondering exactly what you meant. Reading this helped me understand your point better.

        • Good! Yes. They may respond horribly and sinfully to flaws, but its the suffering that usually brings the flaws to light. I guess I tend to focus on the suffering instead of the flaws.

  4. Great post!! I just wrote a short story this week in which I explored the backstory for one of my characters and how she ended up with a bionic arm….oh, the pain and suffering! I was blown away by the enormity of it, and wondered how I had known her so long without exploring this crucial part of her life. It makes such a huge difference for the character to truly suffer, not just to the reader but to the author too!

    • Yes, yes, yes! Even if it’s never a scene in the book, it’s super important for us to know what they’ve endured. As a pantser, I have to go flesh that out after the first rough draft. Then I have to make sure it shines through in the next draft.
      Thanks for reading!

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