Playing the Sadist (Or, Writing Fiction)

Over the weekend I wrote one of those scenes — the ones where you have to try to imagine something unimaginable. Something awful and traumatizing.

Stupidly, it began with me deciding that the stakes weren’t high enough in my manuscript. Up the ante, I said. Kick things up a notch. Bring on some violence.

All of which is very rational and sensible from a cold minded logical part of the brain, and which never seems to take into account that icky feeling that comes when you realize that you’re about to write this scene that’s suppose to traumatize your characters.

Sometimes I step back and think, Okayyy, what am I really doing here? Besides playing the sadist to a bunch of imaginary people in my head. And though I’m no George R. R. Martin I am a sadist nonetheless, most notably that time that I took the protagonist and turned him into an antagonist through all my various powers of corruption. It seemed like a brilliant idea at the time but all throughout the execution I kept asking myself what I was doing and why I was doing it. Because I enjoyed it?

After all, this is what we do for fun. No matter how important the story begins to feel, no matter how pressing, all of this started because telling stories is fun and this is how we choose to pass our time. So, for fun, we make all sorts of shit happen to our characters, and maybe we help them clean it up or maybe we don’t. Maybe we just make even more shit happen.

We sit down, open the laptop, blow some stuff up, close the laptop, and go make dinner.

That is inherently weird.

Why do we write about pain? To raise the stakes? To tell a hard truth? To make sure a story is worth telling? Because avoiding it would seem cowardly? None of that seems to have anything to do with the fact that I went over to Wistfully Linda’s blog today and gushed about how fun it is to have the villain corrupt the good guys.

So the pendulum swings back and forth. One minute it’s great to be sadistic and the next I can’t believe I just wrote something so unpleasant. I can’t believe I gave myself that crawly feeling in my gut just for concocting this torturous situation in the first place, and letting some depraved specimen of humanity make his mark on one of my precious characters.

All this in the name of truth and entertainment.

Am I the only one who sometimes thinks this is very strange?

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5 thoughts on “Playing the Sadist (Or, Writing Fiction)

  1. I totally agree with you about how cool it is that the villain corrupts the good guys! I guess that says something about me, too. :PBut wow, after reading this post I feel like I coddle my characters in comparison! I guess I tend to put my characters in situations where they have impossible, heartbreaking decisions to make. Not so much violence or torture. That's an interesting point about truth and raising stakes and portraying the pain in life though. I guess fiction allows us to amplify our everyday emotions and experience all the ups and downs of life in a safe manner. So the lower the lows, the higher the highs, right? The climax becomes so much more triumphant and glorious because of all the darkness the character had to suffer through.Great post, and thanks for the food for thought!

  2. Oh, I would definitely count heartbreaking decisions as torturous! I didn't mean to imply that sadism was only a result of violence, though I guess I did. Forcing a character to make a tough decision is much the same.

  3. I',m more than willing to traumatize my characters for the sake of the story and themes. I figure, that's real life, yeah? The best conflicts, whether emotional or physical, are the most impossible to solve, and it's the solving (or not) of them, the overcoming of odds, that makes the story and characters resonate. Who could identify with a character that just had everything go perfectly? That would be an unbelievable fiction. The characters that have every disadvantage, suffer every trauma and indignity, and still try to stand up (even if they fail) are the ones I remember, the ones I identify with.

  4. Oh, I certainly know all of that is true. I think it's that sometimes I approach the story logically, examining this terrible thing that will happen and the likely fallout, and then the emotion catches up and can't comprehend the cold-hearted view. Also, I have a habit of allowing "bad guys" to corrupt the "good guys," thus leading the "good guys" to do some pretty awful things… Sometimes I have to wonder where this compulsion to corrupt comes from!

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