I recently noticed something I’m not happy about: in The Hands of Cally Wu, Cally acknowledges her pain.
Now, this is a positive thing in real life. Acknowledging your pain – realizing: what is happening to me is bad; what this person is doing is wrong; I should change this situation before I get hurt worse - is a very healthy thing. It’s something you see primarily in people who’ve dealt with trauma and gotten out on the other side. People like that safeguard themselves. It can come across as selfish, but it’s a good thing. You’re doing what it takes to survive. It can be a relief to see characters respond to trauma in such a productive way, especially if you care about those characters.
In general, I prefer this response over characters who dismiss their pain. “Strong” characters who brush off their pain like it’s nothing annoy the crap out of me. It’s a pet peeve, I guess *g* While avoidancy happens in real life, it seems to be much more common in fiction.
I do understand people’s reasoning for going with that option. Heck, I’m doing it myself in Heirs. Having characters respond to their pain in productive ways rarely makes for good conflict. It can also border on “woe is me”, depending on the writer, and no one wants to read that.
But avoidance has its downsides, which is why I’ve been avoiding it for both Cally and Lillian (from Always Read the Fae Print).
For one, “strong” characters ignoring their pain is kind of overused. It’s a coping technique, not an end goal. These characters are damaged. You can only ignore that for so long.
If the writer acknowledges this – cool. But even then, few writers manage to tackle it in ways we haven’t seen a million times before.
Another downside: At some point, you just want the character you’re reading about to deal with things. If you’re rolling your eyes at the character brushing things off yet again, it’s not a good sign. Confront the elephant in the room and move on with the story.
The thing is, there are more options than just avoidance vs. dealing. When I went over the changes I need to make to The Hands of Cally Wu, I realized that I needed to change her way of thinking about her pain. Acknowledging it doesn’t work for her. She’s been in the same situation all her life, and there’s no way out.
At that point, you don’t acknowledge your pain. You can’t. You deal with it the best way people know how to, and it usually means fooling yourself. You normalize your pain. You defend your situation. You think: it’s not so bad. Other people have it worse. It’s not like this all the time. I shouldn’t complain.
That realization hit me pretty hard. This coping technique is tremendously unhealthy and painful and wrong, but it’s damn common. I know I’m familiar with it, and so are many of my friends – but people who haven’t been there rarely understand. That might be why it’s so hard to write about.
But when people do it right… it hits the reader in the gut. It makes them squirm and want to hug the character and yank them out of there because: no, honey, it is that bad, you don’t deserve this, stop doing this to yourself.
It’s frustrating to read about, sometimes. It’s risky: people might roll their eyes. People might not want to read about someone who’s that self-destructive, who makes excuses for their situation with no attempts at making it any better. For some, it’s probably as much of a pet peeve as “tough” characters are for me. (They might even fall into the same category, depending on how you look at it.)
But it’s also honest. It’s authentic. And I think it’s a part of going there; of taking the risk and doing what it takes to yank the most painful parts of the story to the forefront, even if it means alienating some of your audience.
Not all stories need this. Not all characters respond this way – but this story needs it, and Cally does respond this way, and I think this is going to help me a lot in moving the novel forward.
Thoughts are, as ever, welcome.