Suffering: It’s Okay to Not Talk About it All the Frigging Time
So, a few weeks ago, I was hanging out on the main street in my hometown, drinking my cup of coffee and getting ready to go to work (which involves a lot of steeling myself, but, you know, work). This kid comes up to me, and he wants to talk about faith.
I was, initially, hesitant. I’m an atheist in a bible belt area, and this phrase usually winds up with somebody telling me I’m going to hell. But I didn’t see any way out of it without being unconscionably rude, so I stuck around, and was, in the end, so glad I did.
Because he actually wanted to talk about faith, not just preach his own. There need to be more people who’re willing to do this, to sit down and have an honest talk about what they believe with strangers–and this kid, who asked me questions and expressed genuine curiosity, came closer to converting me than any of the billion and one people who’ve told me I’m going to hell if I don’t believe in A, B, and C, though it wasn’t his intention. He was honest, polite, funny. I can admire a person who takes faith like that, whatever it is they believe.
I’m mentioning this, though, because of something he said about halfway through. We were talking about the afterlife–where you go (or don’t) after you die. He was interested that I didn’t believe in one, and asked me something along these lines:
“But don’t you hope our suffering on this earth means something?”
And that struck me, and it’s stayed with me for a while. My answer at the time (and still my answer, in a non-writing context) was simply that, well, I don’t see that I’ve suffered too much. I’ve got a decent job, a Definitely Not Dave, I make enough money to get by. Life’s what you make of it, not a holdout for a reward.
But I’ve been thinking about it. And my answer now (and why this post has that little typewriter up top) might simply be: ‘suffering’ is, in a way, its own reward.
You see it a lot in poorly written stories: a character (usually the main character) has some terrible tragedy happen to them, something painful and terrible and twisted.
And then, aside from some quietude and weepiness for a while, they remain the same person.
Suffering changes your characters. Suffering changes a person. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst, but it does change them. It doesn’t just make you stay in bed for a while (though it might do that, too). It doesn’t just make you forget to wear makeup or brush your hair.
And suffering is, often, unspoken. It’s something the person afflicted doesn’t feel comfortable talking about, might even feel guilty about. But it makes them do funny things.
The trick is, it’s your job as a writer to make sure people know your character is suffering, without you (or your character) saying a word about it.
Someone like Jin, my leading lady, suffers in silence. Jin simply isn’t a demonstrative person, and as a result, any suffering she might feel from the horrific shit that’s happen to her has to go unspoken. This is a problem I had in Aurian and Jin that I’ve talked about before here–my solution, instead of having Jin talk about it (which is less likely than aerial pigs), was to insert backstory, so you see what she was like growing up.
And the thing about Jin is this. Jin’s tragedy is, in a way, her whole goddamn life. She’s been used, more or less from infancy, trained to be a great tool, employed on alternate occasions by the two men (Emperor and Bonemaker) who have taken the place of parental figures in her life, and who care less for her safety and health than they probably should.
Does Jin know any of this, in a critical thinking sort of way? No. Hell no. I mean, you think you’re perfectly normal, right? What’s your tragic backstory? You don’t know? Oh. Well, neither should your character.
In a way, the very real tragedy of Jin’s life is simply that: she’s gone through most of it without really trusting anybody.
It’s why she married Aurian. It’s why she feels so strongly about destroying the Bonemaker. She’s hurt. She feels trapped. And, like anybody else who’s led a loveless existence, she wants somebody to love, and to love her.
Of course, she would never say this, because she has the emotional IQ of a hungry two year old child. And of course she does. Where would Jin, the Bonemaker’s prettiest tool, have learned about emotions?
Case in point: her ‘suffering’ has shaped and moved her whole life. Sometimes in good ways: it’s made her clever, analytical, able to play her cards close. It’s also made her an emotionally starved and monomaniacal one-eyed drunk (though, if you’ve read it, you’ll notice Aurian actually drinks a good deal more than Jin. This is because Jin isn’t really that much of a drunk. She’s just more comfortable looking that way).
When you’re dealing with tragedy in a character’s past, think on this. And ask the kid’s question: what does this person’s suffering mean? It’s not a plot device. It’s a life, albeit one you’ve made up. So make it make sense. Suffering is central, but not always on the surface.
‘Kay. There y’go. I blogged.