Bring on the Pain

In my past two entries I've talked about how virtues and flaws make fictional characters lovable. But there's another factor, one entirely separate from character, that engages the reader's emotions and makes her care about your story people.

I'm talking about pain. Well, pain, and a few other emotional situations that amp up the stakes and get the reader's blood pumping. They are:

  • pain
  • jeopardy
  • struggle
  • injustice
Mark and I have been watching Lost on DVD recently. (We never got into it when it started airing a few years ago, but wow! What an amazing show). So I'm going to talk about the ways to raise the emotional stakes in terms of how they've affected my feelings for the characters on that show. If you haven't seen it yet, do not read ahead, but go out and rent the DVDs immediately. I'm not kidding here. Go!


I came to care about John Locke quite deeply in the very first episode about him. It wasn't particularly because of anything he was, or anything he did.
It was simply that I saw how much he was hurting--from the loss of his ability to walk, from his inability to hold onto a relationship with a woman who didn't really think of him as her man. And it broke my heart. And ever since then, I have been on his side--even at times when he's done some pretty crazy things.


Okay, so all the characters on Lost are in nearly constant jeopardy. But since we'll have to be more specific for this exercise, we'll talk about Kate. Kate is in near constant jeopardy, especially in her flashback sequences, when she's practically always running from the law. Watching her in deadly jeopardy, not knowing exactly what's going to happen to her, is a thrilling--and moving--experience.


Watching Charlie struggle to overcome his heroin addiction has been similarly moving. Even though he often made the wrong choices--when he hid the heroin filled statues, when he stole his girlfriend's heirloom for drug money--I was watching that struggle and feeling very attached to him. When the character struggles, it gives the reader something to root for--a way to get engaged.


Back to Locke here. In the episode where we learn that his own biological father had perpetrated a devastating con on him, I could have wept for Locke. Sure, it was the pain of the situation, but it was also the sheer bloody injustice of it. It was wrong, dammit! Wrong! I was able to get righteously indignant on the character's behalf, and never had I felt more engaged with him.

All the characters on Lost have complicated storylines, with frequent doses of pain, jeopardy, struggle, and injustice, which is one of the reasons it's such a gripping show. We can't watch these people without feeling for them--without coming to love them.