Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Make Them Suffer

Yes I know this isn't Skyfall.
I saw the latest James Bond movie Skyfall over the weekend.  I liked it.  My husband is a big James Bond fan in general and I’ve seen a lot (not quite all) of the James Bond movies.  Daniel Craig is by far my favorite James Bond, and these last three movies have been eons better than the previous ones, and I think the big difference, why they work for so well for me, is how much the movie makes James Bond suffer.

I’m not going to give anything away since I know the movie just came out, but if you’ve seen Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace you know what I mean.  These writers aren’t afraid to make Bond suffer emotionally and physically.  Every movie puts Bond through a wringer.

I feel kind of bad that I like to see characters suffer almost like I’m a little sadistic, but honestly, I think making the characters suffer ups the stakes, it makes you feel that they have a lot to lose and that success isn’t a given, in fact, it is almost impossible, and that ratchets of the tension while making the hero feel vulnerable, more relatable.  And that is what I personally like in a story.


I started watching Leverage a TV series when it first came out.  And I thought it was really clever.  It was about a team of ex-thieves and ex-con artists conning bad thieves and bad con artists who are ripping off innocent people.  Of course the noble team gives most of the money back to the original victims of the bad guys and keeps only a small percentage for themselves.  It’s kind of a modern day Robin Hood and his merry men.

 I’ve always loved a good heist flick, so I was pretty excited about this show.  And really it had everything I like in a good story, interesting and fun characters with a lot of clever dialogue and twists with great character-character dynamics, and I’m sure that there are a ton of people who love this show (and I do understand why), but I gave up on the show after four or five episodes, and it took me a while to figure out why this show didn’t work for me.

In every episode that I watched there was a point when their mark was on to them, and it looked like their whole scam was unraveling, but in the end, it was always revealed that they had planned the whole thing, that the mark catching on was just part of the con.  It was really clever how everything came together and how they tricked the bad guys, but it go really old really fast for me.

I realized the show didn't work because there was a the lack of stakes.  The team never really suffered or struggled.  They were always better, smarter, one step ahead of everyone else, and while it was cool that they were so awesome, but it also made them less interesting, less real, less human.  And while it is fun to watch a group of criminal geniuses pull off a clever con, it is more fun to watch that clever con fall apart completely and leave the team scrambling and struggling to pull the pieces together and somehow managing to regroup and pull off an even cleverer scheme, like in the movie The Italian Job.

Elena vs. Bella

Just because Breaking Dawn was recently released and I haven’t blogged about Twilight in at least a couple of months, I feel the need to mention Breaking Dawn.  I’ve blogged before on how I felt about Bella’s transition into a vampire was too easy (you can read it here), but the recent episodes of Vampire Diaries have made me think about this a little more (WARNING:  massive spoilers for both Breaking Dawn and Vampire Diaries).

This season in Vampire Diaries, the main character, Elena, has just turned into a vampire.  There are a lot of parallels between Elena and Bella since they are both human girls who fall in love with a vampire (or vampires in Elena case), but unlike Bella, Elena never wanted to be a vampire.  More than anything, she wanted to remain human.  Even in times where her problems would be solved if someone just turned her, she always chose the harder path of staying human.  So she wasn’t happy at all about being turned.

In the past several episodes, Elena has struggled immensely with being a vampire.  She can’t keep down animal blood and has to drink human.  Enjoys drinking blood a little too much, and almost killed her human friend who was a willing donor.  She struggles between that predator vampire side and her overly compassionate human nature.  Even though she is super strong and wicked fast and will be young forever, the down side of drinking blood and nearly killing people is torturing her.  And for additional angst, her vampire boyfriend, Steffen, is having a hard time adjusting to the new Elena because he’s struggled immensely trying to keep those murderous urges in check and seeing those aspects of himself that he loathes in Elena has put a strain in their relationship.  This all translates into lots of tension and conflict, and I think it makes for a very compelling story, and I’m really enjoying this season.

Honestly, this is where I thought Breaking Dawn was going.  There was all of this build up about how hard it was to become a fledgling vampire, and I really thought Breaking Dawn would focus on Bella struggling to adapt to be a vampire and maybe even some conflict between Bella and Edward because of how becoming a vampire changed her.  It felt like a natural place for the story to go, and I was disappointed that Bella had no struggles at all in becoming a vampire.  I thought it was a missed opportunity for lots of great internal conflict that would have enhanced the tension of the story.

I just think that there is something about seeing a person or character suffering that makes us empathize and care more about that them.  Although, I do think that there is a limit.  You shouldn’t go out of your way to make your character’s suffer.  That can feel just as false as going out of your way to protect your characters.  Also, it can be emotionally exhausting for the reader when everything goes wrong and the character loses everything.  Like in all aspects of writing, there needs to be a balance.  I’ve heard the saying that a writer should essentially chase the character up a tree and then throw rocks at him, and I’d like to add that maybe the writer shouldn’t go a step further and burn the tree down.  There is a limit to making your characters suffer, but you should make them suffer.



  1. I've never been that much of a Bond fan, but some of my friends are, and they don't like the direction the Daniel Craig movies are taking. They call him "Emo Bond," and wish for the classic days of Bond suavely defeating legions of enemies with (yes) an exploding pen. I suppose it's all a matter of taste.

    I've actually been meaning to write my own post about suffering in characters, but from a different angle than you took. I'll have to get to that for the post after my Thanksgiving one.

    1. Emo Bond, LOL, I've never heard that, but I can see why they would see it that way. It is a matter of taste. I know a lot of people like to see action movies with awesome heroes just being awesome with witty one-liners. I prefer more of an underdog and little more depth to the hero.

      Looking forward to your post on suffering.

  2. I wish I could remember the name of the book I threw down in disgust because of this very (Leverage)problem. Having a main character who is always one step ahead of everyone else, all the time, just gets old. On the other hand, I felt the same way about Burn Notice, but with the villains. For several seasons, it seemed like every single move Michael made was EXACTLY what they had wanted him to do all along, no matter how unlikely.

    Sometimes it takes awhile to figure out how to best make your characters suffer. I write something, leave it for a while, and when I come back I think--wow, how did I miss this excellent chance to cause her pain??? I'm too nice the first time around. :)

    1. I have the opposite problem when the bad guys are too smart. It frustrates me that good guys can't get any sort of break. I guess I like it best when the bad guys are only slightly ahead of the good guys. Yeah, it's tough to strike the perfect balance. :)

      LOL, I'm so with you on your "wow, how did I miss this excellent chance to cause her pain" moment. I hope that doesn't make us seem a bit sadistic. :)

  3. I don't know that it is suffering so much as a feel of realism. I like what you said about Bella and Edwards relationship changing and change should cause conflict. Edward for some reason feel in love with a mortal and weak Bella and conflicts adjusting to her new state of being makes sense. Also it makes sense that his family and hers too should have more of a reaction to their relationship. Couples with less differences have conflicts with the in laws. By the way I would have to check the link but one of my facebook friends posted a link of the Actor who helps Edward talking about how shrewed up Bella is too be attracted to Edward after he tells her he wants to kill her and how screwed up Edward is to be attracted to her. It is funny,

    1. I agree. It isn't so much as going out of your way to make the character suffer as not shielding them from the natural consequences of the story. And I have to say that I agree with the Robert Pattinson (actor who plays Edward) that there is something strange about Bella and Edward's relationship. Someday I'll have to do my Bella post because my interpretation of her is a lot different than those I've read on the internet.

  4. I was disappointed with Breaking Dawn on so many levels. From the way the second book ended, it really seemed as though there would be a massive battle, full of casualties. Harry Potter's end battle, for instance, killed off half of the people that had survived up to that point. It was heartbreaking, but it was realistic. It made the fight meaningful--these people knew going in that some of them were going to die, but they were willing to die for what they believed in. In Breaking Dawn, however, there was a lot of talk, very little action, and in the end, both parties simply walked away. Very anticlimactic.

    (I'm talking about the book, since I haven't seen the movie.)

    This was a great post, and like Sabrina, I'll probably touch on this subject in a future post.

    Thanks MaryAnn! I needed to read this tonight, before I start a scene heavy with conflict and sacrifice. :)

    1. YES! I was so disappointed in the big build up to the battle that never was. I hope they change things in the movie (I haven't seen it yet). I've heard that the ending is a little different. But in the book it was very anticlimactic.

  5. That's exactly what bugs me about Bella. I love happy endings, but there's no need to end that happy. Characters need to grow, and there is only growth through suffering.

    1. Sheena, you've hit the nail on the head, and I wish I had thought to put this in my post. It is all about growth, and that is why the earlier Bond movies don't work for me because there is no growth (in most of them, there are some notable exceptions). Mostly, it is just Bond being suave and awesome, but I like to see character growth, and like you said, "there is only growth through suffering."


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