Why Do We Enjoy Painful Stories?

Don’t laugh at the title; it’s a legitimate question. Oh, sure, a lot of the great stories end well. In the Lord of the Rings, the bad guy dies, and everyone lives happily ever after. Except, a whole bunch of people died, and Frodo may as well have been one of them, for how different he is.

Two of my favorite characters from Harry Potter died before the end (why’d they have to die?).

Why do we, as story-consumers, enjoy pain in our stories. It could be just because without pain and suffering and angst, there would be no story. But I think there’s something more to it. I just don’t know exactly what it is.

I know I torture myself a lot, about the characters from my stories. I love them, I really do. I want them to be all right. But I still put them through hell, for the sake of the story. Because I believe that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, even if we don’t always like what happens to a character after the pain.

Again, I’m talking about Frodo here. In the beginning, he was a pretty average Hobbit. Then he goes through about a year of torture from a piece of evil jewelry and the world around him, and he comes out the other side practically a zombie.

I want my happy Hobbit back.

But I also value the character development. Does that make sense?

I just want the characters to be all right, to be happy. Of course, some authors seem to be allergic to that (*cough* G. R. R. Martin *cough*), but I think that a happy ending should be a given.

That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m gonna give all my stories happy endings, though. See what I mean about confusion and not knowing what’s going on? Is the entire human race just a bunch of emotional masochists?

Masochists who occasionally want to be spared pain?

I don’t know. I’m not a shrink, I don’t know how my head works. All I know is that I want my little people to be okay, and happy, and safe. And that almost never happens in the stories I read.

A recent book I read (and loved), called “Faking Normal” by Courtney C. Stevens, had what I think is a really good way of showing this phenomenon?

It’s not exactly a secret in the book that the main character is a rape survivor, or that her new friend just lost his mother. But despite these pains (and a few others), they’re still good people who manage to have fun and care about each other. And even though I felt like chucking the book across the room a few times (seriously, girl, are you that thick?), I enjoyed the angst and fuzzy-feelings cocktail.

But it becomes overwhelming when it’s just PAIN-PAIN-PAIN-PAIN-PAIN with no end in sight (*cough* Aliens franchise *cough* Ripley *cough*).

It must be a mild form of insanity, or masochism. Because why else would we, as readers, enjoy putting people we care about, or even love, through pain for our enjoyment. It’s like Ancient-Roman gladiators, but we’re (usually) assured of their eventual success. After they’re beaten and bloodied and half-broken.

It’s depressing.

It’s invigorating.

There’s nothing better in the world than cheering for the beaten-up hero when he finally knocks the bad guy out. Like in the first Back to the Future movie. Boy, I cheered at that.

I don’t understand it. All I know is that it’s a part of me, like I assume it’s a part of everyone else who enjoys reading. And it’s difficult to do, but a writer has to be able to do it. So wish me luck, please.

I’ll need it to write book four.


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