Why do we read what we read? Serious question for those of us emotionally invested in our fictional escapes. So, what is the true reason? Do we seek an escape that offers hope and inspiration? Do we choose a tome to fulfill unquenched or longed-for desires? Or perhaps, there is a darker motive. Do we yearn for a cathartic purging of our own blacker emotions via fantasy? Do we seek a peek into a world of depravity and debauchery, just as we can’t turn away from a horrific accident on the highway, gaping in wide-eyed wonder?
I’ve been doing a bit of soul-searching on the topic recently, specifically because of a book series my lovely book club members and I have been reading. I’ll leave the author’s name out of the discussion; however, suffice it to say she repeatedly drags her hero and heroine through monstrous torment, resulting in serious heartbreak for the reader. (Um, me.) So much so, that while reading book three, I’m hunkered down in my covers, trembling with dread at what disturbing and cruel torture I will find on the next page. While the writing itself is vivid and beautiful and even intensely romantic at times, the plot-line continually makes me want to stab my kindle! (Sacrilege!)
Now, does that mean we readers want Little Red to skip happily through the woods, picking wildflowers and having a perfectly wonderful visit with Grandma? Hell no! We want Red to be seduced from her path then chased by the Big Bad Wolf, find poor Grandma killed and her own life in mortal danger before the bad-ass Huntsmen breaks into the cabin, dealing violent and bloody revenge with a deadly ax on our sharp-toothed villain. Even kids love this story for a reason. In other words, though I’m not speaking for everyone, we readers want fiction to reflect life in a way that offers a glimmer of light at the end of the dark, dark tunnel. We know reality sucks sometimes and life isn’t always fair. We get that loud and clear from the moment we get up in the morning and turn on the news. What we don’t want to discover is that there is no hope or redemption for our fictional counterparts that we grow to love and care about.
Let us step away from the reader for a moment and consider why the writer writes what he/she does. All of the questions in the opening paragraph can be repeated for them as well. If you, dear author, are only fixated on sadistic, torturous ends for your characters, then perhaps you should seek therapy rather than pick up the pen. As a writer, I know that writing is an artform as well as therapeutic, but even I know I’m not writing just for myself. I do actually consider my audience's feelings. If your reader dreads more than longs to pick up your book, there is a problem. As my friend Jessen said of our current read, “The punishments and rewards ratio in this series is seriously off balance.” Well said. The key word being balance. Even Shakespeare, the Master of Tragedy, wrote more comedies (17) than tragedies (10). He knew and understood that in a world filled with grief and hardship that “all’s well that ends well.” So, go ahead, authors. Torture, maim, kill the hero or the hero’s love if you will, but offer us some balm for the soul in the end and a reason to keep turning the page.
*I’ve attached the trailer for Silver Linings Playbook for a little comic relief on the subject. Bradley Cooper expresses exactly how I’ve been feeling lately. (Thank you, Jessen, for this clip and recommendation.)