alecaustin and I had a long conversation today about how fiction sometimes needs to have depiction of horrible things, and the fine line between “necessary horrible” and “voyeuristic horrible,” and the way that readers have sometimes been conditioned toward voyeurism regarding horrible things (see: the problem of depicting rape), and so on. And he got me wondering what I would consider to be the worst violence I’ve inflicted on a character of mine.
Off the top of my head, I decided it was the stuff that happens to Seniade in drafts of what eventually became Dancing the Warrior. It isn’t actually the most damaging violence — she doesn’t die of it — but it’s horrible because it’s being done to her by a sadist, and she knows it, and she accepts it because she think it’s what she needs to do. Plus I dwell on the details of it, the step-by-step process and the pain that follows, which I don’t generally do otherwise. I called it “borderline torture” in that conversation, and only leave it at “borderline” because Sen could walk away at any time.
For all that, though — as I told alecaustin — it bothers me less than, say, the plague stuff I wrote for In Ashes Lie. Partly because Sen volunteers for it, but partly because most of us are desensitized to violence. And then that made me realize that what I find “worst” about the DtW stuff isn’t the physical suffering after all, but the psychological: what’s going on inside Sen’s head. (Which is why it’s the drafts, not the final version, that are the worst. One of them — not so much a draft as an exercise — is a pure, unadulterated inner monologue.)
And then I started thinking, you know, that might be why I tend to prefer torturing my characters psychologically, rather than physically. Because it bothers me a lot more. <g>
I’ve known for a long time that I’m a sucker for suffering and angst. It only works if you get me to really care about the character first; angst in an unlikeable or boring character will just make me roll my eyes. And it has to be the right kind of suffering; my taste tends toward the operatic end of the spectrum, rather than the grinding, day-to-day banality of things like “how will I find the money for rent this month.” But if you hit the right notes, on a character I’m invested in? I will eat it up with a spoon.
I can’t say it’s fun, exactly. “Magnetic” would be more apt. The next-to-last scene of the film The Wind That Shakes the Barley is excruciating to watch; something truly horrible happens, and there’s no resolution afterward to let me feel it’s All Okay Now. But it’s an amazing scene. (One which I didn’t see until after A Star Shall Fall was over and done with — but if you want to know what psychological note I was aiming for near the end of that book, watch the movie. Or, y’know, watch it just because it’s a bloody brilliant piece of work from Cillian Murphy. It’s streaming on Netflix, and worth it for the ending alone.) I can’t look away from such things, and they stay with me long after they’re over.
Really, it’s cathartic. And yet — why do I enjoy the experience? Why am I so often a sucker for drama over comedy? And what determines what kind of suffering I’ll enjoy, versus what will just depress me? I’m still working on the answers to that. So I’m curious to know how others feel about this kind of thing. Do you like angst, and if so, what kinds, under what circumstances? Which kinds of suffering bother you more, and which are you desensitized to? What can you bear to write, versus read, versus watch?
I’m hoping your answers will help me understand what’s going on in my own head. 🙂