Novelists write about suffering because real life is hard. Relatable characters can comfort readers through connection and inspire them through victory. The more closely people connect to complex, if fictional, people in stories, the more they can find strength in pursuit of their own growth and development.
Whether in biographies, history books, religious texts, or outright fantasy novels, people find hope in characters they care about, but to fully appreciate the highs of overcoming adversity, stories must first dive deep into very real elements of suffering.
Suffering is endemic to life
Our lives are full of difficulties, and often we can wonder why we endure them. What’s the point of the pain? Why do we experience tragedy, loss and disappointment in our lives? Ask famous psychologists or philosophers and you might hear that suffering is an inherent element of life. Modern sensibilities often say “there’s no need we ought to suffer!” Yet, suffering has been a part of the human condition since our earliest civilizations, and it doesn’t come from a lack of quality of life as much as the everpresent conditions of the human heart.
The Greek Aeschylus once said:
“Wisdom comes through suffering.― Aeschylus, Agamemnon
Trouble, with its memories of pain,
Drips in our hearts as we try to sleep,
So men against their will
Learn to practice moderation.
Favours come to us from gods.”
Moderation and indulgence in food-scarce times is a sign that even in human lack, people struggle to control the darker sides of our psyche. It’s not the lack of modern comforts that creates human suffering, but our hearts sick with desire and lack of self control.
Even in the best of times and situations, people turn on each other, abuse the helpless, steal from the needy and serve themselves at the painful expense of others. Explore the seven deadly sins and you might be able to name a person you know for each and every one of them.
To believe that a lack of diversity or mere inaccessibility to clean water and food is the root cause of human suffering ignores the backbiting, jealousy and other self destructive habits among the world’s wealthiest, regardless of their origin, creed or color.
People suffer because everyone is inherently broken. Everyone must learn to face and heal from the brokenness within if they ever hope to handle the brokenness without. To that end, we read stories that both provide an escape and, if we’re lucky, deliver us through a journey that can inspire change in our lives, merely by relating enough to the hero to believe we, ourselves, can be so, too.
The power of a story is context
Most people have read inspiring quotes or read lists of easy-to-read morals like the Biblical Ten Commandments or Buddhist aphorisms, yet struggle with a deeper understanding of simple principles without a form of context to frame simple truth against the complexities of personal, everyday living.
Stories are powerful to readers in the same way that food better delivers needed vitamins and minerals to people who eat them over pills — We need something that helps us digest it the way our bodies and minds need it.
Unlike lists, stories empower people to frame and relate complex concepts to their own lives. As social creatures, we learn more from cues than books. We learn how to behave with our parents and siblings, extended family and community by watching how others behave more than how they instruct. We model, test and challenge what we witness and experience. We’ve learned it better than reading textbooks and scientific papers because our minds were meant for relative truth, not distilled facts.
The most published literary work in world history, the Hebrew and Christian Bible is effective because it possess more stories than instructions about people who bore the same internal struggles present with mankind today — greed, avarice, lust, jealously, self doubt, desires to do better, pursuit of a higher calling, the call to love our neighbors and improve the lives of the down-trodden. Similarly, the Islamic Qu’ran, Hindu Bhagavad-Gita, Chinese Tao Te Ching and Buddhist writings frame many great truths in relatable stories so that, even millennia later, people still gain personal value and life lessons in their reading.
Without stories, truths are little more than vitamin pills left in bottles that might hurt as much as help on an empty stomach. It takes food for our bodies to properly respond to input and absorb the deeper value of what we swallow.
Truths in fiction can empower our reality
Readers the world over have changed their lives and overcome long-term suffering by internalizing the journey of a favorite character. Scan online forums and discover testimonies how fiction has helped children grieve or outcasts feel wanted. VC Andrews’s horrific stories of West Virginia helped a fearful young girl realize her difficult life wasn’t as bad as she thought. An entire podcast called HarryPotterSavedMyLife.com highlights how J.K. Rowling’s famous saga continues to help countless people overcome adversity and find themselves.
Even if you believe religious scriptures to be nothing more than works of the imagination, billions of people worldwide glean powerful lessons about finding peace, improving their lives, helping others and rising above their stations.
Principles that improve are lives are true whether in a story about a dragon-driving starship or a best-selling memoir by a war-ravaged military veteran. If I learn a principle of self care by reading about a colony of rabbits fighting for survival or the autobiography of a holocaust survivor, what matters is whether I connect to the character enough to internalize the same lesson they do in the course of their journey.
As a well-fed American, I sometimes struggle to comprehend the evil faced by Jews in Nazi Europe. As a military veteran, I can better connect with someone who fought and suffered in Afghanistan because we share contemporary cultures and concepts, even if they suffered less than the Auschwitz survivor.
Stories matter because people matter. Our minds don’t often care if the stories we read are true-in-fact as much as they are true-in-spirit. I cry every time I read my favorite book of all time — Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi novel Ender’s Game — because I could relate to his struggle as a smart child in a world that didn’t understand him. It doesn’t matter to my soul that Ender isn’t real, only that my struggle connected with his, which meant his victory could also be my own. In that, I found value, meaning and hope.
Embracing the need for suffering
“WHAT!?” “How could you do that!?” and “YOU KILLED HIM!” are common late-night texts from my friends and prereaders working through early copies of my fiction. Like infamous writer-director Joss Whedon, not every character my readers learn to love will survive to the end of the story. The desire to kill beloved characters isn’t about the love suffering, but creating context that will frame the true power and depth of the necessary victory to come.
In a recent post, I discussed my aim to bring the beloved childhood fairytale of Peter Pan into the adult sphere because I connected with adult challenges more than simple childhood problems. Facing adversity in my own life, I don’t relate to unidmensional challenges and easy solutions, but complex and broken people struggling with other equally broken people.
Peter is my archtype — a boy who faces adult problems amidst circumstances largely out of his control. He must deal both with his dreams of what a better life should be while learning to accept what they really are. Only when he deals with both can he move on to a better life in all his complexities without dragging his past in behind him.
Perhaps, in all my fiction, I’m trying to teach myself how to live more contentedly within my own soul. Perhaps in reading this kind of fiction, all of my readers are seeking the same.
Whatever continues to press us writers to generate suffering in fiction as a journey into peace, I can only imagine it’s an outward expression of the universal pursuit in us all to better ourselves and our individual journeys into a brighter tomorrow.