Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Technical Topic -- How much abuse

Someone asked elsewhere . . . 

How much physical abuse do we put the character through?

To which I respond . . .

A reader is probably less interested in the abuse per se --
than in what the abuse means to the character
and how the character reacts.

The interior of the scullery boy plotting revenge in a I'm going to pee in her soup before I bring it to her way while he nurses his aching head and scours the pots
is actually more interesting than the cook hitting him over the head with a spoon. Boink ouch boink ouch pain suffering.

The underlying problem with hapless suffering, in a story sense, comes when it happens to someone without freedom of choice.
Abuse or pain endured is, (like a typhoon or a swarm of army ants or crippling illness or crop failure or the Empire at war,) a story problem.
Story is character choices and character action.
Story is the character doing stuff.

Starving to death on the farm is story problem.
Jack climbing the bean stalk is story.

The wicked stepmother and step sisters is story problem.
Cinderella making her own dress to go to the ball is story.

Pollyanna losing her family is story problem.
Pollyanna choosing to look on the bright side is story.

It isn't about suffering. It's about agency.

If your protagonist is acting and choosing, then the sufferings spotlight the importance of his choices. It's story. Go ahead and abuse the poor protagonist. Frodo's sufferings on his trek through Mordor are story.

In Frodo's case, suffering raises the stakes.  Privation and pain make the protagonist's courage or innocence or steadfastness shine.  But we don't mistake the suffering for the story.  We concentrate on what tells story.

The 'story' in Oliver Twist is not about Oliver starving to death in the workhouse. It's about Oliver standing up and saying, 'Please, Sir, may I have some more?"

This is why the protagonist's stay in the kitchen under the heavy hand of the spoon-wielding cook or the child growing up with a sexually abusive uncle will often be introductory to the story.

The reader is given enough background to emotionally understand why Cedric-the-cooksboy is desperate enough to run off in the middle of the night through war-torn Madreltonia or why Albert-the-schoolboy poisons his uncle's tea. Then Cedric and Albert get on with the business of doing something instead of being somebody's punching bag.


  1. Beautifully put! Also when characters suffer needlessly and it has no impact on their character or behaviour it has the same impact as sex scenes out of context - it becomes tedious. It's the person the reader is interested in not the act itself!

  2. Christine2:46 PM

    I definitely believe in the school of "less is more" when it comes to things of this nature. One thing about most action movies lately is how over the top the abuse of the main character is, by the time he falls off of planes, trains, gets shot etc without more than a couple of bruises I am rolling my eyes. At that point it has become a cartoon to me and the hero/heroine is now Wily E Coyote. I cannot be emotionally involved in their story.

    In contrast, one of the most touching things in Adrian's story so far was a quiet moment he had on the stairs with Jess in "My Lord In Spymaster" where he made a confession to her about something she had said ( I won't say what- spoiler free!) That one sentence spoken matter of factly by him was so poignant and telling about what his life had been like that no amount of "telling" or scenes of him "suffering" in flashbacks could have been as moving- at least to me. Although Adrian definitely had "hooked" me as a character in "Spymaster's Lady" by this point it made it so I HAD TO KNOW- what was Adrian's story?

  3. Hi Charity Girl --

    Sex and violence are a fine relish to food, but they are not the meal of the meal.

  4. Hi Christine --

    The ancient Greeks gave us melodrama enough, but put actual violence off-stage, because it was not 'temperate'.

    Shakespeare, equally melodramatic, held his deaths and sword battles up at the footlights where everyone could see.
    But see WHERE he puts this violence. How seldom he uses it.

    You sum it up with 'less is more'. Not the disembowelment -- the groan. Not the rape scene -- the silent aftermath.

  5. @Christine. What you say about the scene in My Lord and Spymaster is perfect. I'm now even more anxious for Adrian's story.

    Jo, I hadn't really thought about how abuse/violence should be used to contribute to the story in quite this way, but now it seems obvious (as most truths do once someone says them). I think of the dungeon scene in TSL, when all 3 characters choose to resist in ways that we discover are totally consistent with their characters.

  6. That first scene in Spymaster's Lady --

    I am with you on this. Very violent.

    I turned the graphic on that up and down a few times, trying to use the least possible.

    I do not like to see this pain and suffering stuff, myself. I have to kind of set my teeth when I write what's needed in the books.

    And I especially didn't want some innocent reader walking into that book and thinking my writing is all like that.

    But I did need to show what the stakes were. I couldn't just SAY -- "She's in deep kimchi," and "He's a real bad man." I have to show it.

    Because, in the first half of TSL, a major suspense point is that it MATTERS that Annique doesn't fall back into Leblanc's hands.
    And I only have about two pages to set this up.

    Thus . . . the violence and abuse.
    Thus the story decision I made to show this onstage, rather than picking up the story after it happened.
    I try to show the brutality less in the immediate, blow-by-blow description, than in the responses to the brutality.

  7. "Sex and violence are a fine relish to food, but they are not the meal of the meal."

    Love it :-)

    I love the Spymaster's Lady - that first scene does everything you describe. I immediately got a sense of how high the stakes were (life or death), how brave and bold the heroine was - and what sort of life she had been leading. Brilliant. Still one of my all time favourite romances!

  8. Thank you so much. I'm very pleased and flattered that you should like TSL.

    Oddly, I don't really have a favorite of the books. There are bits and pieces of each that I like or am proud of.

  9. I love the clear way you contrast story and story problem. Such an important difference, and one that not every writer grasps.

  10. Hi Beth --

    The difference between story and plot. So useful.

    You don't need this stuff to write. People are excellent writers without ever dissecting what they do.

    It's when you're trying and trying to make the writing work and it is NOT, that you go all analytical about it.