Exploiting Suffering in Writing

624fc6a797196598a1860079cba7af88Warning: This post deals with issues of depression and may mention some triggering subjects, such as cutting.  Reader discretion advised.

I’ve noticed a somewhat disturbing trend amongst younger writers (around the 13-17 age range).  A lot of people seem to enjoy writing stories that are about nothing but making their characters suffer; essentially torture porn (maybe not extreme enough to include the porn part, but some of it can be).  They have no reason for why they’re making their characters suffer (from a storytelling point of view), they just want there to be as much pain as possible.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I used to be one of those kind of people.  I had a whole backstory for several of my characters which was literally torture for their entire life up until a certain point.  Nonstop pain and agony which would have probably killed them long before it actually ended.  One day when I got older, though, I wised up, took a look at it, and said, “What in the world is wrong with me?  This is messed up.”

I always thought it was weird that I’d be writing the more disturbing stuff when I was younger and then end up toning it way down when I got older.  I thought that would have been the opposite: writing the more disturbing stuff the older I got (which in a way I have, but disturbing in a completely different way).  But then I found out that I wasn’t the only person who did stuff like this.  Actually, a lot of people wrote the disturbing twisted torture stuff when they were younger and then wised up as they got older.

I’ve been trying to figure out just why we wrote things like that when we were at that age.  I believe the answer for many people is that it’s a way to vent their feelings.  For some it could be they’re venting by imagining themselves as the person torturing the characters, and for others (like me), they’re imagining themselves as the one being tortured, or perhaps they just want to get rid of all the pain they feel in their lives by dumping it onto someone else, except doubling it.

The first one is pretty easy to understand; a lot of people enjoy venting in ways they can feel like they’re hurting someone/something without actually causing harm.  Video games (especially shooters) are a good example of this.  It can be a healthy thing to do, as long as you don’t ever take it too far or go outside of the realm of fantasy/fiction with it.

The second one may be a bit trickier to understand.  Why in the world would anyone want to imagine themselves being a character that is suffering so much?  Well, for some people, seeing more suffering is a way to vent out your own suffering.  While I personally have never experienced the urge to cut before while going through depression, I think that is why a lot of people do it.  Physical pain can sometimes be a break from mental pain.  In the case of writing, seeing a character suffer so much while putting yourself in their shoes, can give you that same feeling.  It is a strange and tricky subject to approach and it’s hard to understand if you’ve never been in such a position before.

Now, the last reason I stated is a bit more disturbing to me.  Wanting to dump your own suffering, plus a whole bunch more, on someone else.  There are a lot of people out there who are hurting a lot and will lash out at people who don’t understand by saying they’ll never understand because they’ve never experienced it.  They’ll sometimes even go so far as to wish terrible things to happen to people who seem like they’re so happy and like nothing has never plagued them (me again).  But those people become hateful and bitter and it’s even more unhealthy.  A lot of people who go through depression know just how awful it is and they wouldn’t wish it on anyone, let alone even more suffering than that.  That’s why I find the idea of, “I’m suffering, so I’m going to cope by making someone else suffer even more than me,” so truly disturbing.  It may be fiction, but even in this case I think it’s unhealthy.

Now, the other point I wanted to make on this subject is that you need to stop writing stuff like this.  Or rather, I should say, you need to stop writing stuff like this with the idea that these are stories that should be shared with other people.  I’ve talked to people who write stories like this and then they get upset when people read their works and say it’s too dark.  They lash out by saying things like, “You just don’t like horror/dark things,” or, “You just don’t understand.”

The thing is, stories like this are (generally) not good storytelling.  If the only thing driving your story is the conflict of your character being tortured and miserable, no one is going to want to read it, and there’s a very small chance that it will actually be any sort of meaningful story.  There are examples I could give you where a story like that can work, though I doubt if you’re a really young writer like that that you’ll be able to pull something off like that.

There’s a game out called Neverending Nightmares that was created by someone who suffered through extreme depression, and the game is essentially experiencing what he went through.  You walk slowly through dark halls, see creepy and disturbing imagery, and hear terrifying noises.  While there is some pretty heavy, grotesque images in the game, it’s far and few between and it doesn’t come off as “torture porn”, as I mentioned a lot of stories by young writers seem to be.  The thing about Neverending Nightmares is that it tells its story subtly and through just a pure experience (which is an advantage that video games have over any other media).  If you can tell a story like that – showing an experience like that without going too overboard – I think you’re more likely to have a great and meaningful story than if you simply stick your character in a room and torture them forever.

I don’t want to discourage you from writing things like that, because as I said it can be healthy to have a vent.  I just don’t want people to use “venting” writing to attempt to craft a story they think is good for other people to read, and then they get upset when people “don’t understand” or think it’s too dark.  We don’t want anymore exploitation stories where there’s tons of blood and gore or other types of suffering.  Suffering in a story needs to be meaningful.  Your characters need to react to it in realistic ways and not just end up being your personal pin cushion doll.  Don’t make the world of your story look so terribly hopeless that there’s no point to anything anymore, even if that’s what you feel like.  How many people are going to want to read something like that?

So before you say your torture stories are just too “dark and edgy” for people to understand, why don’t you take a step back and think about it critically.  Even if you have some form of depression, most people aren’t going to want to be immersed in even more suffering than they’re already feeling, especially if it doesn’t pan out to anything other than more suffering.  So please, for the sake of everyone else, either try to make your stories better and more meaningful, or just don’t let others read your venting writing.

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