Pooks made a comment here about my reaction to my short story, and used it to ask whether other writers suffered.

My initial reaction was “that isn’t suffering,” and I haven’t changed my mind, but after thinking it over for a while, I can see why she’d the question that way. Making the reader suffer is something we try to do all the time. Whether it’s suffering from a sad ending, or from edge-of-the-seat tension, or terror, a good book can make a reader suffer – in a sense.

That’s not what I’d consider suffering, though. So my answer is still no. Suffering would mean to be persecuted for their work, like Solzhenitsyn or Rushdie. Or to be so obsessed with the creative process that your life suffers. (I’m obsessive, but not to that extent.)

In the sense of “make the reader (/ viewer / whatever) suffer,” obviously, there are some great books and movies that do that. I doubt I’ll ever be able to watch “Paris, Texas” again. (Of all the emotionally-wrenching movies I’ve seen, that’s the one that always comes to mind.) The movie makes you identify with the protagonist, and you certainly feel the protagonist’s suffering, which is a deeply disturbing and upsetting experience. I just wouldn’t consider my own reaction to it as suffering.

And that is very similar to how I feel about my own characters. When I realized how much potential suffering the one change I made would cause my protagonist, it did upset me – in exactly the same way that it would upset me had I experienced this in someone else’s fiction. I certainly wouldn’t refrain from making the change because of it – quite the contrary. I’m always happy to make change that sadden me, because I think it has the potential to improve the story.

This particular change doesn’t even guarantee that things will be as bleak as I imagine, and that’s better still, since ambiguity is (almost) always good.

Having said all that – there’s a problem with identifying with my characters so closely. I can tell when making them suffer is an improvement, but I can’t know whether the story is as good as it seems to me. I’m sure that no-one is going to find the story has as much meaning to them as it does to me, because I’ve lived the idea for so long. It might be that if you can be more dispassionate about your characters, you can get a better feel for the overall success of the story.

(We decided – in her presence – that Pooks must be a sociopath for the way she can remain cool while tormenting her creations.)

Still, whether or not there are benefits to a dispassionate view, I’ll take my way of doing things. Then I know that a) at least one person gets to enjoy my writing, and b) the act of creating a story is at least as worthwhile as the act of reading someone else’s.

Actually, I say movies and books don’t make me suffer. That’s not really true – I have watched Battlefield Earth. If I ever find myself creating something of the caliber of that dismal piece of garbage, I hope that I will be able to do the honorable thing.

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