Why We Keep Writing About Characters in Pain

Pain is the most difficult prerequisite of growth.


I’ve been trying to write the same story for over four years.

Different characters, different settings, but the same main idea: people do bad things. It doesn’t mean they are bad people.

I became overly frustrated with my novel this week – so much so that I’m now 10,000 words behind schedule, which has never happened to me in any of the previous 8 NaNoWriMos I’ve done. I’m terrified, and angry, and fed up – because from somewhere in my head, these same storylines have emerged again. Not the same characters with the same personalities or strengths or flaws, but pasts. They all made this big mistake, and they’re trying to rebuild their lives in the aftermath. I’m so tired of always writing about this.

And yet, it needs to be written, from my perspective. Because there are things in my personal life I stubbornly have yet to deal with, and my brain isn’t going to move on from this theme until I do. That’s not so important right now. What’s important is that we’re way too hard on ourselves. We’re our biggest writing roadblocks. I used to get upset when I realized how dark all my stories were. Then I realized how much more realistic that made them. This is my style because this is who I am. I am who I am because of the pain I’ve endured. It’s all for the better.

Why do we keep writing about characters in pain? Because all humans are in pain. Not all people, all the time, read to escape their pain. They read because they seek to be understood. The same way you write to grasp a clearer understanding of the things you’ve been through.

You can’t write a book featuring characters without flaws, without putting them through difficult situations or having them come to terms with some past mistake or unfavorable circumstance. It’s not a good story if there isn’t growth. There are cliches within that requirement you have to learn to avoid, but that’s just something you learn how to overcome the more you write. People struggle. If you want your characters to be realistic, you have to make them struggle.

I never judge anyone for writing something dark. I’m guilty of it 500 times over. You can’t separate yourself from the stories you tell – not if you want to make them emotional and relatable; not if you want to take your readers on a journey. If you’ve lived, you’ve been through stuff. It doesn’t matter if it seems minor – it’s a big deal to you. And it’s very hard to avoid that when you’re writing. Your characters are created from the same brain that processed, or is still processing, whatever bad things have happened to you. You can use that. You should. You’re allowed to. It’s not overdone. It’s human.

I promise to keep writing regardless of how tired I am of these stories, if you promise to do the same. Whatever your hurdle is, you can climb over it. You’ll end up with scrapes and bruises and it’s not going to be an easy climb, but you’ll do it. We all will.

Your characters are hurting because they’re waiting for you to help them grow. Keep writing. Don’t abandon them. And know that you’re going to grow as you write, too. It’s a long process. It takes time. But I’m sure, as sure as I can be where I stand now, that it will be worth it.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.

3 thoughts on “Why We Keep Writing About Characters in Pain

  1. I am so behind for Nano as well. Launching for my PR business killed it, unless I count blog posts and website copy.

    I write a lot of dark work and have never felt apologetic about it, and neither should you. It’s a genre like any other. Write what you know has always been sound advice.

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