Saturday, July 27, 2013

Pain Builds Character

I found this wonderful guide on Darcy Patterson's Fict!on Notes blog where she makes the point that emotional pain creates strong stories. Darcy took the visual pain scale commonly displayed on hospital walls and compared it to how much pain a character should be feeling at any point in a novel.

You can find her post here:

Darcy has some great ideas and I've taken plenty of liberties with them.
Here's a variation on the visual guide Darcy used, and my take on it...

Assess the Pain

No pain. If your character, especially your main character, is feeling no pain, you ain't got a story my friend.

Mild pain. You can start here when you're introducing your main character (MC) and her problem. You can end here, too, with tying up story threads and smoothing over residual pain. But when you move on, remember that meaty middle needs some punch!

Moderate pain. Your MC wants something but obstacles crop up that interfere with your MC obtaining her goal. You punch her in the gut. She's surprised. She's annoyed. She's frustrated. She's angry. She's holding her breath because she's afraid. Did you know fear is another word for emotional pain? Yep. By invading her personal space, her physical and/or non-physical boundaries, you've introduced some primal fear. Tap into that pain and pay attention to how she reacts.

You can read more about fear and creating a character's emotional arc in my May 2012 posts, starting here: Identifying a Character's Emotional Arc

N.B., If you find your action is fury fast, be sure to provide your readers with breathing space by contrasting the active stress with some emotional rest.

Severe pain. Consider yourself a knife thrower. Your MC experiences severe pain when you throw a knife in her shoulder and then walk over and twist it. I'll bet your MC is wondering what the heck just happened. Then maybe she's panicking. It's crisis time. Oh, wait, there's another knife in the air and she forgot to duck. Zing! Struck again.

Worst pain. @#$% the knife is heading for her heart! Nothing motivates a character more than facing death. The death of her. The death of a loved one. The death of her dream. The death of her ideals. You get the picture. You are now at the climax of the story. Your MC's animal instincts kick in and she's in fight or flight mode. Either way, she can't take the pain anymore and something big has to happen. There must be some resolution, like maybe now she's the knife thrower and you're the target. Jeesh! Seriously though, most people in pain must find a release. For some people, that means taking it out on someone else. How does your MC react to the worst pain ever?

Pain in Perspective

So, let's put this pain scale in perspective. Don't throw knives at young children. What I mean to say is picture books don't need such an intense level of pain. Young children cry when something is taken away from them. Losing control over an object can elicit painful responses. Really, melt their ice cream cone, and that's about the level of intense emotion you want to aim for.

For a middle grade child, emotional pain becomes more personal and now maybe they've fear losing or have lost a friend, or a pet, or a teacher. Or, maybe they're the teacher's pet and they fear losing their status.

Young adult and beyond, even more personal, they're losing their self-identity. They thought they were a certain kind of person and now they're not so sure. Then BAM! now they're doing something they never thought they'd do and who does this make them now? Can they ever go back? Do they want to?

Painful POV

If you're having trouble figuring out point-of-view for your story, examine the key points in your story and find the character who is in the most pain. If you consistently find a secondary character in more pain than your protagonist, consider switching point-of-view. And, if you find characters in no pain or in only mild pain, refer to the chart above! Those characters can and will be ignored, so either delete them or figure out how to inflict some emotional pain on them.

Do you find the pain assessment tool useful for planning and/or reviewing your MC's emotional arc? As a writer, are you mean enough? I look forward to reading all about how you torture your characters. Leave your comments below.