Friday, October 21
No Joy: The Worst That Can Happen Isn’t Always Best for the Story
If you’ve been reading the blog for a while you’ll know that I love to be mean to my characters. Trouble makes for good plots, and the more trouble the better. “What’s the worst that can happen?” is a motto I live by. But despite my love of torturing fictional people, it is possible to do too much to them and lose the joy of the story.
The now-canceled HBO series, Deadwood, is a good example of this. (For those unfamiliar with the series, it was a western set in the Dakota Territory in the rough and tumble town of Deadwood, where there was no law) In the first season I was enthralled (once I got past the constant swearing). Life was hard for these characters, but there was a sense that there was hope, and that things could work out for them.
Season two all that changed. Bad guys didn’t get their comeuppance. Good people died and nothing was done about it. The joy was gone because the hope was gone. It wasn’t a story about people struggling in a tough situation; it was about people suffering with no hope of easement.
I recognize that the series was based on real people and real events, and they couldn’t exactly change historical fact in any significant way. I think this hurt the series, as it forced them into corners I suspect they couldn’t get out of. It was probably far more realistic to what life was like then, but it didn’t leave me feeling satisfied.
No matter how terrible I am to my characters, I try to maintain a sense of hope, even when it’s all hopeless. They might have to go through hell and back, but I’ll reward them if they make it. There’s light at the end of that dark tunnel, and it’s not a train.
Like many folks, I enjoy an underdog. It’s the struggle to overcome that hooks me, makes me root for a character, and makes me want to see what they do next. I don’t like watching someone suffer.
And that’s the subtle difference in a dark story.
If you’re working on a story where things don’t work out so well for your characters, you might consider looking closely at what the point of the trials are. Is your character learning from their experiences, or are they just there to be a fictional whipping boy? If the only point of a scene is to just show how bad things are, it might be worth rethinking the scene. Ask yourself, are you teaching your characters something or just making them suffer?
Stories don’t have to have happy endings. Sad endings can be quite powerful. But if the reader reaches the end and wonders why the heck they just spent hours reading the book, you have a problem. Even something as dark as The Road ends with a glimmer of hope. Humanity does still exist in the world, bad as it is.
We have the news to read about bad things happening to good people. Stories are meant to take us away from all that.
How do you feel about dark stories and character suffering? Do you enjoy a story more or less if there’s a glimmer of hope at the end? Do hopeless endings leave you satisfied?