Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Pain - making your characters hurt

[Image courtesy Flickr creative Commons; Shekynah ]

Pain is an intrinsic part of humanity. Our ability to anticipate it, avoid it and cure it is a large part of what makes us human, and such a successful species. 
Pain comes in three main forms, emotional, physical and spiritual - or some variant of the three. It also comes in varying intensity, from mild annoyance or discomfort to gut wrenching, excruciating agony - there is a gradiating scale of intensity.
In romance (I have absolutely no interest in horror or thrillers), pain usually comes in the form of emotional pain and turmoil, and it is how a character reacts topain that makes the story interesting, believable and engaging.
The majority of people strive to avoid pain and suffering (I am not going to dwell of fetishism, s&m or whatever - that's a whole different story). As humans, we have created a world where we cushion ourselves in cotton wool, take the easy path, and constantly weigh up risks. Yet, in our reading we expect our characters to suffer, be burdened by pain or failure and hopefully overcome it. Pain and suffering are the characters motivation in a story.  Then, the characters reaction to pain and suffering is generally termed the "conflict". The "conflict" is what holds them back from gaining their Happily Ever After.
It is in describing pain and suffering however, that the author can have a lot of fun. For either physical or emotional pain, a good description makes the sensation real in the imagination of the reader.
For example, "a hot sick swoop of panic", is one of my all time favourite descriptions of panic. Over the years I've used it in my own writing and read it in others.  Alas, it's not a very unique description but it is very evocative. No matter how many times I read this, I can almost feel it, as the description fits so well with the horrible sensation.
The challenge for the author is to invent new (or use uncommon) ways of describing pain (or any emotion in fact). When your character's "heart aches" you're pretty much using a cliche. Although there is a place for cliche's in writing. You don't want to use them too often. So inventing a new way of saying "her heart ached..." is well worth the effort.
I have two methods for describing pain (and other emotions). Firstly, I consider what it would actually feel like... How would I feel if the man I loved could never be with me... yep, my heart would ache, but what else? Perhaps, I'd feel suffocating, cloying misery cloak me, and shadow my every move. Or maybe anger would burn in my gut and smolder like a septic ulcer. I'm going overboard now, but you get the idea.
Secondly, my lovely critique partner is constantly at me to "show"not "tell". To this end, I've spent hours looking at body language. How do you show when someone is in pain (emotional or physical it doesn't matter). Well, obviously, muscles bunch, sweat beads, brows furrow, lips thin. Going out and looking at peoples behaviour will give you some great descriptions.
So, all up, in literature (romantic or otherwise), pain is an important motivator. Finding good ways to describe it will ensure sympathy and empathy from the reader - which ultimately is all a little author could hope for.

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