There’s this thing that all creatures do. They exist in a balance of pain and comfort. Change is painful (read: uncomfortable), so only if one’s life becomes more painful than the change that would be necessary do we make changes. This means that people who don’t change bad habits aren’t broken; they just are literally not in enough pain to change.
The problem arises with another characteristic we have: we can get used to a lot of discomfort. The boiling frog analogy is so true, and we get used to things that, if they happened all at once, we would immediately fix it. Instead, we sit in the fire and claim it’s all ok.
Creative story comes from pain
Magic doesn’t come from talent; it comes from pain.Eliot Waugh, The Magicians
Magic, creativity, change. So many things fall into this. Real creativity comes from pain. That’s where the tension in story comes from.
As readers, we like to read stories that identify with our own painful experiences. It makes us feel less alone in the world, and it helps us to see that and how others deal with those situations.
Reading about pain that we don’t necessarily identify with but which comes close to our experiences is satisfying, too. We learn about other people’s experiences, which increases our empathy. We bond over shared and/or similar pain, as anyone familiar with support groups knows.
The painful ground
You get talent when you discover the ground of your pain.H. R. Giger
The interesting part is that pain in story has to meet certain guidelines to be satisfying. If you’ve ever read a book and loved it, then hated the ending, this could be why.
- The pain must have meaning. It can’t just be painful. It has to lead somewhere. The journey FROM pain is a story structure that is growing in popularity for a reason.
- Pain doesn’t follow normal rules of fairness in story. We are not very tolerant of depictions of unfair pain or unfair causes of pain, or even unfair resolutions to it. This seems odd because real life pain tends to be very unfair and illogical, but it makes sense when you realize we desperately need to believe that there is some kind of structure to life’s chaos. Even if it isn’t a “happy” ending, there is a certain amount of fairness or justice in a satisfying ending.
- Genre has a lot of influence on where the line of “too far” is. There are certain painful situations that you can get away with in horror that are completely inappropriate in YA. Comedy tends more towards awkwardness and discomfort than the outright torture that can fill grimdark.
- How pain is dealt with changes and grows. While the death of a child might have been a common backstory for villains and anti-heroes, it is becoming more common to follow the protagonist’s journey through the trauma and recovery (or not) of those really painful situations. It is no longer just about getting the hero angry. Now the hero has to go through the psycho-emotional effects.
- Trauma has to be more delicately detailed these days. It used to be that a vague mention of a thing that happened was enough. Now we want the experience, but we want it done with sensitivity, compassion and realism. (This does still vary wildly by genre.)
Your opinion matters
What do you think? What do you like to see in painful situations? Are you more of a misunderstanding/romantic or do you like stories where the hero ends up hospitalized and in therapy, or even dead? What do you like to see regarding the journey from pain?