Angsty Fun Times

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. 🙂

0 Responses to “Angsty Fun Times”

  1. mrissa

    “How will I find rent for the month” is an interesting case for me, because I think the line between boring and completely unbearably agonizing is nonexistent. There is overlap, cases that are both but no cases that are neither.

    I have great difficulty with scenes where people who genuinely care about each other are doing stupid/uncaring things in their relationships with each other. That kind of angst is very difficult for me, I think not so much because I’m desensitized to violence, although maybe I am, but because I don’t have expectations of anything better. If I’m watching The Wire and Avon Barksdale orders a hit on a rival, well, that’s the kind of show it is. Avon having serious trouble with his best friend and partner Stringer Bell? I am on the edge of my seat.

    It’s not even that I can’t bear to read sexual violence, but right now I am angry about its handling and prevalence in the field. Things that would probably have struck me as not too bad in isolation are not in isolation, any more than one dead girlfriend motivating the hero is in isolation, any more than a princess being saved by a handsome prince is in isolation. So the minute the author is using sexual violence, they have to overcome my sense that it’s being casually and voyeuristically overused in the field in the last 5-10 years.

    • Marie Brennan

      Your relationship thing makes me think that one of my key criteria is that I believe in the necessity of what’s going on. I check out very quickly from people doing stupid/uncaring things to those they love because it is so often a result of nothing more than bad decision-making — “oh, I’m upset about this thing, and I’m not going to tell my husband/wife/sibling/whoever!” — and therefore I want to slap them.

      And that’s one of many reasons why I, like you, have a very small tolerance for sexual violence in narrative. So often it isn’t necessary; it’s just tossed in there for the cheap shock value. And that’s made it hard to deploy that trope non-voyeurisitically — because we’ve seen it used in a titillating fashion so often, you have to be extremely good not to call in all those associations where you didn’t intend to put them.

      • mrissa

        Right, the necessity is one of the differences between “this is emotionally wrenching for me” and “c’mere so’s I can kick you.”

        • Marie Brennan

          I think I fall more frequently on the “c’mere so’s I can kick you” side of the reaction — but that has more to do with the way relationships (at least of the romantic sort) tend to get written than anything else. (Dear Authors: no really, I promise it’s possible to get conflict in there without sacrificing your characters’ communication skills.)

        • diatryma

          One of the things that puts Friday Night Lights in the same category as The Wire for me and at least one of my roommates (we’re about a season into both) is the sort of trappedness of everyone. In The Wire, it’s the system that’s evil– everyone is fighting against it in some way, and even the supposed bad guys are sympathetic. In Friday Night Lights, we sort of get the same feeling even without drugs and murder, just Texas football, and there still aren’t any really unsympa… wait, no, we continue to roll our eyes at one of them and have lost patience with another, but neither of these two is wholly bad. They are just really good portrayals of people we don’t like.

          Angela and I both like one of Courtney Milan’s books because the stupid misunderstandings aren’t there. There’s a lot of emotional stuff going on, but it’s not due to poor communication.

          • Marie Brennan

            Fighting the system is the category that tends to get me the most upset, actually, and not in an enjoyable fashion. Too close to home, I guess.

  2. logovore

    I’m clearly on the far end of some spectrum, because I feel like I’m surrounded by people who love passively watching and sympathizing with helpless suffering.

    I have no patience for merely feeling along with helplessness as entertainment; I want to read about doing something.

    Show me the character has important choices upcoming, and then I’m happy to enjoy their pain — Ender’s Game, A Wizard of Earthsea and The Vampire Lestat are all examples (in three very different writing styles!) of this kind of effective emo+agency.

    Show me a character who’s suffering with no view toward what they can next do, and I disengage. Octavia Butler’s books are wonderfully written… yet as a reader, I’ve hardly ever been able to appreciate them.

    So, me? Emo plus agency, please.

    • Marie Brennan

      I would say I don’t want momentumless suffering — which may or may not be quite what you mean. I’m okay with helplessness if it’s a consequence of stuff the character did previously, because sometimes that’s meant to be the nadir, the point at which you don’t see how they can take action going forward. But even then, I generally trust there will be such action; the preceding narrative gives me confidence in that fact. (Unless it’s the very end of the story. Like I said, The Wind That Shakes the Barley packs a hell of a punch with a scene that basically can’t go anywhere afterward.) I do need something on one side or the other, though, or both, to make it work for me — which is, now that I think about it, a way to distinguish what I see as “victimization” from the stuff that entertains me. I don’t like victimization at all.

      • aishabintjamil

        I think what makes this ending work, and not be a pointless waste of life, is that in the end both sides both win and lose. The loss is obvious, but it’s also winning because it’s the cost of standing by things they deeply believe in, and there’s a beauty, a trueness to the self in that.

        If the brother who dies at the end had turned in his friends to save his life it would have been very human, but he’d have thrown aside a big piece of himself. That’s what Yeats meant, I think, when he wrote “a terrible beauty is born” in his poem about the 1916 rising. To do what you believe in, and pay the personal cost of it, unflinchingly, is a rare and frightening thing.

        • Marie Brennan

          I agree, and would add that (for me, at least) some of it has to do with the deconstruction of a trope. Without going into terribly spoileriffic detail: the first time I watched it, I was thinking about the pattern of how such scenes tend to go, in terms of character behavior, and wondering how realistic it was. Then the movie proceeded to methodically crack that pattern until it fell into tiny little pieces — along with my heart. So the unflinching willingness to show the cost of those choices had a lot to do with it, too.

  3. aishabintjamil

    I know what I really read for most of the time is an emotional experience. There are exceptions where I read the book because the world is just that cool, but for the most part the thing that really hooks me is emotional tension. Looking at your examples, you get a lot more of that tension in the interplay between hero and villain where the villain is trying to play mind games with the hero, than you do with the hero struggling against faceless adversaries like worrying about where the rent will come from, or whether his nearest and dearest will survive a plague. There’s no continuum of power exchange with the faceless adversary.

    The major exception would be scenarios where the hero/heroine has an internal struggle. Do I do my duty to country/tribe/etc. or take care of my family? Do I hold onto my principles, knowing it will put my loved ones at risk if we don’t have the rent money, or do something I’ll hate myself for later to keep them safe? The attractive drama there isn’t whether or not the rent will be paid, it’s what choices the character will make, and what kind of struggle/repercussions are involved.

    I think the worst thing I’ve done to a character is a scenario where an Empire in my fantasy world is in such desperate straits fighting a magical menace that the Emperor needs to offer himself up as a Sacrifice (think the Sacred King mythology from the Golden Bough). One of his brothers volunteers to take his place, feeling that the Empire needs the Emperor at the helm. He’s at peace with the idea, but his loved ones are another story. He asks his foster son to be a witness for him – that’s where the real tension/pain lies – can he bear to stand by and watch his foster-father die? But if he says no, can he live with having made his foster-father’s sacrifice that much harder? That’s a terrible choice to have to make.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yes, emotion is the reason why character is one of my two top entry points into a story (the other being setting). And that’s probably why a lot of depicted violence either skips off me with little effect (because there’s no emotional freight) or offends me (because of failure to adequately recognize the emotional freight). If a character is tortured, whether physically or psychologically, I want to understand the reasons why, get inside the head of either the agent or the victim, and see what consequences it has afterward. But most stories that use torture don’t bother with those things much at all, so I’m left either bored or annoyed.

      • aishabintjamil

        Yes, this, exactly. The need to understand made me add a whole second viewpoint to one of the novels I’m working on, because the original main character just didn’t understand enough about what was going on for the reader to enjoy the story. Having the interrogator get a viewpoint too let me show what the other side hopes to gain.

        Oddly so far my beta readers seem to be split about 50/50 with respect to which of the two characters they enjoy more, which I guess means I’m succeeding, although it needs a thorough polish before it goes beyond my crit group.

  4. maratai

    My line on this in written fiction is a general line that happens to carry over to violence/suffering. It’s competence. The instant [edit: fixed typo] someone is doing something really incompetently, or without a logical plan, I get annoyed and detach from the characters (attacker or victim, either way). This probably explains why I am so drawn to K.J. Parker, whose characters tend to be horrible human beings but who are very logical. As long as I can follow the logic and it’s well-executed, I’m usually okay.

    And then sometimes the torture is just random and I check out. I think I sleepwalked through the entire 100? pages in Wizard’s First Rule where Goodkind has Richard being tortured, and I can’t tell whether that’s because I am a deficient human being or that was an unusually bad patch of a not very good book.

    In terms of emotional angst, it is extraordinarily difficult to do romantic relationship angst in a way that won’t have me looking for another book that blows things up instead. I have accepted that the entire romance genre is just not for me. I can handle angst with comrades, I can handle friendships, I just can’t handle romances because the decision trees usually look like utter spaghetti.

    I haven’t pushed graphic violence far in the published fiction, but that’s because my writing style unfortunately makes violence even less effective. It’s too gunked up with stupid adjectives, and I’m working on retuning. My tolerance for cutting up characters is very high in practice, but it is rarely the case that it’s the correct plot/stylistic/thematic choice to get very detailed. I do find it entertaining to inflict mayhem because, hell, they’re made-up word puppets, I know more than anyone else exactly how real they’re not and I might as well amuse myself.

    I wrote a rape (of a man by a woman, not that it matters, I suppose) in the yet-in-beta sf novel. I am unapologetic; it is not graphic and I have a very good idea of the whole thing and why it’s in there, but the reader doesn’t need to know the details to get the idea.

    • Marie Brennan

      I can’t tell whether that’s because I am a deficient human being or that was an unusually bad patch of a not very good book.

      I’d vote for the latter. It struck me as a total non sequitur — here I am reading this (rather tedious) epic fantasy, and then suddenly it’s a 100-page tribute to BDSM! . . . uh, whut?

      The sad thing is, maybe that could have been written in a way that was effective. But Goodkind was not the writer to do it — not by a long shot.

      I’m trying to decide what would make me choose to get graphic about violence in my fiction. I think it would probably have to be along the lines of Dancing the Warrior, with a pov character who’s being hurt, but is either accepting it for some masochistic reason, or soldiering on through in really cold-blooded fashion. I’ve touched on that latter a couple of times in games, actually, now that I think of it. One was a character who had been rewired to basically process pain as nothing more than data: hmmm, the following damage to my knee means I will only be able to run at 40% normal speed. The other was a super-powered character whose shapeshifting powers could be applied to heal herself; the GM being rather twisted himself, my character’s teacher started one sparring session by shattering her right leg, so she would learn how to keep fighting even when supposedly incapacitated.

      But bar those two scenarios — or a sadistic pov character inflicting pain, which I’m not much interested in writing — I’m not sure I’d really feel the story needs graphic description of violence.

      • aishabintjamil

        I tend to try to write realistic fight scenes, I think mostly in reaction to the sanitized scenes we see so often. The sword goes snicker-snack, the bad guys fall over, and our heroes go off for a beer. Or TV shows like the A-Team where they spray automatic weapons fire around liberally, and nobody dies.

        But you know, I think it comes back again to the point of emotional cost. For most people there’s an emotional cost to graphic violence, which I want to see the character experience. Or if he doesn’t, I want to know what weird thing about him prevents it. Maybe he’s a borderline sociopath and doesn’t care, or is like your character who’s been rewired.

        But I think you need some level of realism in the violence, before you can show that. How can you have an emotional reaction to something if you don’t show the reader what the character is reacting to? We can’t just say the battle and leave it at that because our reader’s have been so conditioned to think of fights as things the characters go through, patch themselves up afterwards, and go on afterwards. Come to think of it, gaming and reducing everything to hit points is probably a very bad influence in this respect.

        • Marie Brennan

          I don’t know if I would blame it on gaming. Movies and TV were showing consequence-less violence long before D&D came along — witness how commonly characters get knocked out, yet never suffer a concussion afterward, much less brain damage. Or people who get punched repeatedly in the face, but don’t end up with any bruises or swelling.

  5. sandmantv

    This is something I’ve thought a lot about lately, in terms of the separation from authorial intent. It seems there’s a lot of work where the author means one more enlightened thing (“necessary horrible”, or “these characters are bad people”) but large parts of the audience take the much lower common denominator view (“voyeuristic” and “weeee these charismatic shiny people). This comes up in say, Sopranos, Mad Men, Magicians, How I Met Your Mother, Dave Chappelle Show, anything with anti-heroes or parodies that are well drawn. The masses, often not wanting to think critically about their art, take it at face value. I’ve no doubt that many scenes of sexual violence were written with utmost distaste by their author, but still become fantasy fodder for many readers.

    So what do you as an author do about that? Do you really think your perspective on what the scene means is enough? Where’s the line where enough of your audience is clearly taking it the wrong way.

    • Marie Brennan

      My answer would be that you need to take a long, careful look at a) why you’re including the scene and b) your level of detail. If you want to depict something as bad, then you can often accomplish that as well or better by showing the aftermath, rather than the act itself. Yet what we get is usually the reverse: the rape (or whatever) in detail, and then consequences swept under the rug. If you want to depict the event as horrific rather than titillating, it would probably be more effective to switch the priority order.

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