Going for the jugular... and the jewels
On making your protagonists suffer
A common writing tip is to take your protagonist, imagine the worst things that could possibly happen to them, and then make them happen. There seems to be no question about the link between art and suffering. My favorite interpretation of why this is comes from the excellent book, Wired for Story, which reminds us that in the history of human communication, story comes before language. Before we could write, before we could draw, we told stories of danger to our children to warn them, to teach them through other (fictitious) creatures’ mistakes.
We learned from the sufferings of gullible dogs and cunning crows, from Oedipus and Orpheus and Odysseus, and from the sufferings of the Pandavas and Rama, banished from their kingdoms to the dangers of the forest. As a writer, an artist or any kind of storyteller, a story only really becomes interesting when you put your protagonist under excruciating pressure.
This quote from Salvador Dali haunts me.
What is lighter, more fanciful and free to all appearances than the arborescent blossoming of agates! Yet they result from the most ferocious constraint of a colloidal environment, imprisoned in the most relentless of inquisitorial structures and subjected to all the tortures of compression and moral asphyxiation, so that their most delicate, airy and ornamental ramifications are, it seems, but the traces of its hopeless search for escape from its death agony, the last gasps of a bit of matter that will not give up before it has reached the ultimate vegetations of the mineral dream.
The beauty of agates comes from their suffering. And as I plan out my story, I keep wondering, Have I piled on enough? Are my protagonists suffering as much as they could? Are they beautiful as agates now?
And of course, Have I overdone it?
Because suffering can very quickly tip into melodrama. Sometimes it seems as if what the kids are reading these days requires a minimum amount of rape, torture and death. Although I didn’t have any of that in Driving by Starlight, the expectation has definitely been putting me off writing in the Young Adult genre more and more.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading about suffering. I just prefer my protagonists’ agony to be more nuanced, exquisite. Less brutal and physical. I was surprised by how deeply I was affected by an anime titled Rascal does not dream of Bunny Girl senpai, which, from the title, didn’t leave me with high expectations. In the story, the protagonist Sakuta takes excellent care of his sister, Kaede, who has regressed to an infantile personality in response to online bullying. For two years, she is terrified of leaving the house and lives like a hermit with her dolls, clinging to her older brother. Sakuta feels guilt over his sister’s condition, over not being able to prevent it. He wants to help her overcome it, of course… but when it finally happens, he’s actually overcome by grief. For two years, he’s had a different sister, one who needed him and was utterly devoted to him. When she returns to her former independent self, he’s wrecked and lonely, and forced to confront the issues in his own life instead of burying himself in taking care of her.
I wasn’t expecting an anime with such a ridiculous title to have any depth, and was surprised to be bawling my eyes out at Sakuta’s unexpected grief. I think, in general, I’m interested in these sorts of more delicate, psychological agonies than in body horror. There’s something about them that feels new, particularly now as I’m in Italy seeing the history of Western art as agonies writ upon the flesh. There’s only so much you can do to the human body before it becomes meat, and when you’ve wandered down the streets of Florence with giant flayed carcasses hanging in every restaurant window, it ceases to shock.
There’s also something strange about which kinds of agony we’re willing to see as art. Here are two examples. The first is a segment from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, showing Minos in hell with a snake eating his jewels. The second was hanging in a villa on the Amalfi Coast, and shows women presumably having some sort of period orgy. But is there any emotion beyond the initial flinch of primal fear or disgust?
I do want my protagonists to suffer, but I want my reader to be able to stay with the pain, to feel it as the unlocking of something new within themselves. Because the point of a story has remained the same over thousands of years, which is to warn people of a danger they didn’t yet know to fear, to teach people of emotions they did not know to feel. And there’s so much more to feel beyond the simple threat of physical pain and violation.