Writing Pain In Fiction

Confession: I’m writing this post as a form of procrastination and it may be a bit wandering, but I think we’ll end at a coherent place.

I’m supposed to be working through my editor’s notes for Part 2 of the Project Renovatio series (hereafter known as Project Liberatio, or PL). And I have been. In fact, I’ve been elbow-deep in said edits for the past few days. But yesterday, I reached a certain scene…

I won’t write spoilers for future PL readers, but suffice it to say this scene and those that follow leave me emotionally wrecked. I can only work on them for a short time before I have to do something else. Earlier today, it was clearing the pantry of expired food. Now, I’m blogging. Or so it seems.

write what hurtsThe scenes have my character experiencing extreme trauma and grief. When I originally wrote the book nearly three years ago, I became a slug of a human being for several days after writing this part. Now, at the direction of my editor, I have to bring out more emotion and more internals and more reactions. The result of this is me being an even bigger slug.

The events my character experiences are far worse than anything I’ve personally experienced or written, but that by no means lets me off the hook. I have to make his reactions and emotions believable, and that means I have to imagine what it would be like to experience what I’ve written for him.

I have to delve into the physiological effects of rage, shock, and the early stages of grief. I have to imagine what I would do if I were in my character’s place. I have to act out his mannerisms, his body language, what he does with his face when he speaks. I have to reach deep, to that primal place where fear and dread and pain live and where I like to keep them buried. I have to invite them to the creative process.

no tearsAnd I don’t hesitate to do so. These scenes can go really well if I do them right, and by that I mean they will reach readers in a way that the story will linger. They will be difficult to read. I know this because of how difficult they were to write, even three years after I penned the first draft. But I also know readers will continue past these scenes to see how the character grows, what he learns, and how his experience affects his decisions for the rest of the trilogy.

Basically, they’ll want to see how he copes.

We write as a way to capture humanity, and part of being human is experiencing pain. Do it well, and we have characters who ring truly human and speak to the readers in a way that resonates. That’s my goal, and since I can’t meet it until I get back to my edits, I leave my fellow writers with this question: Have you written something that has required you reach so deep?

24 thoughts on “Writing Pain In Fiction

  1. The Magic Inc. series is based on my own childhood and the intense bullying I experienced. It is constantly forcing me to relive the pain. The pain I almost didn’t survive the first time. But to me, stories are about the emotions they evoke. A story could be extremely well plotted, but if I don’t feel connected to the characters and their emotions, it’s not going to be meaningful. I want to feel what they are feeling. Some of my other stories do have characters experiencing pain I have not personally felt. And maybe I will never be able to express that as perfectly as some one who has. But all I can do is reach into my own pain and mold it into my characters’ hearts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love this – A story could be extremely well plotted, but if I don’t feel connected to the characters and their emotions, it’s not going to be meaningful.

      Emotions really take a book from okay to amazing, IMO. I hope writing about your bullying experience is healing for you. I know a lot of writers find writing about trauma to be cathartic.

      Thanks for reading and for the great comment.


  2. Hmm. The one million dollar question. Can we write what we don’t know? Especially when it applies to pain and suffering. I guess you’re right. It requires you to REALLY put yourself in your character’s shoes, feel empathy for what you have created and, as masochistic as it sounds, go through what they/we made them go through/ went through (not literally, that would be taking it way too far) to be able to put it into words.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I would advise against applying this literally. LOL 🙂
      I’d say – and this applies across the fiction writing board, not just on this topic – that more often than not we’re writing what we don’t personally know (or at least I do that). We can draw from pieces of our own experiences, and maybe that gives us a starting point.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Allison,

    Your post is a reminder (wham upside the head) of what I’ve been hiding from for far too long. I spent two years writing as much as my psyche could handle about my personal experience of Operation Enduring Freedom. I had to go slow and pull myself away from working on my novel, sometimes after several hours, sometimes over several days, at the risk of being lost to what I had lived through, again. Raw, painful and debilitating does not do what I experienced justice.

    I was devastated when I returned home after being in Florida for 3 weeks caring for my aunt who was dying from stage IV colon cancer and found the hot water heater (installed upstairs) had exploded and destroyed two rooms below where the hot water heater was located. One of the two rooms was my office, which is where all of my notes, my research, and the work I had completed on my novel was kept. All of my material was destroyed from water and mold damage. This was a different type of pain and loss, but pain and loss, nonetheless. The thought of recreating what was lost to me is as fearful and traumatic as living through it, again.

    Your post is a reminder to me of what it is I must return to, regardless of the raw, painful emotions, and begin again to finish what I started.



    • Oh, Donna! You sure have been through a lot, much of which most of us can’t come close to imagining.

      I’m friends with a writer who teaches a course that has to do with writing through trauma, writing as part of the healing process, that kind if thing. I’m not saying you should look into a course like that per se, but to be honest, as close as your writing is to a truly traumatic experience, I hope you have an added layer of self-care in place. What you describe is more than a few steps above what the average writer does.

      Also, I can’t believe your water heater did that! That’s absolutely a tangible and real loss.

      All that said, I think you’re correct in your drive to finish, despite all the obstacles. I think finishing something like that would be cathartic. Just promise to take care of yourself. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Since you’ve read the first chapter of my next novel, Blamed, you know I had to dig deep to show the pain my character Bill was in. Although not easy, that wasn’t as hard as trying to bring Bill out of the doldrums he would naturally be in after the experience he had. I like to write characters who are upbeat, have a sense of humor, and look for the bright side of a situation. Which is hard when a character may have to drastically alter their life from the one they love. That change will be viewed negatively. Trying to be funny then would not be realistic. Wish me luck getting Bill to have a sense of humor again.

    Good luck with the edits.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Emotional pain is harder to write than physical, I think. Getting Bill back to his sense of humor could be a great arc.

      You did a great job with those chapters. I’m looking forward to reading the rest. 🙂


  5. Thanks for another great post. I was thinking that no, I don’t think I’ve ever written something that painful, that it just hasn’t come up. Then I thought more and realized that wait, there are places in my novel where I really should be delving deeper into the painful emotions, but I’ve been skirting around them, viewing them from a nice safe distance. Wow, how did I not see that before? Something to put in my revision notes, for certain.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve definitely written things that hurt horribly. I have a final edit pass and audio recording for a really painful novel this summer. Reward for finishing (and maybe getting to certain points) helped with prior drafts, as did having someone to talk to and occasionally reassure me I was still a good person. It was worse on the edits because all the bad stuff got turned way way up.

    Good luck. And finding a good key to breaking away from that headspace is important.


    • Thanks. I’m having a similar experience with all the bad stuff getting turned up. It feels strange to work on these edits and then walk through the sunshine to pick up my kids from school. Forced out of that headspace, I suppose.


      • I did my edits in the winter. Even though the story was set in the summer it seemed to fit better. The bleak outside seemed to fit better. Though there was much less relief from I’ll just go outside for a walk to clear my head. Which I think would be a good thing! I did ban myself from thinking about it when I wasn’t working on it. It kept it from invading all of my life.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Fantastic post! I was just thinking about this yesterday! I had to write a scene that hit me so hard I put it off for two writing sessions. I just couldn’t do it, because I knew how much energy and focus it was going to take for me to do justice to the character. I ended up writing it through gritted teeth, and by the time my jaw was throbbing, I was done. It will need a rewrite but I had to get it down the first time, just so I could keep on going. It always seems worse in my head, though. My character is stronger then me though, he can take it.


  8. Red Flags, the novel I am editing, centers around a young figure skater who has a sexually abusive coach. Some scenes in that book were extraordinarily hard to write. I’m still editing the earlier chapters of the novel, where my main character hasn’t yet started training with that coach. Years ago, when I wrote the first draft of those chapters, I had a tough time sleeping at night. I put myself on a strict regimen where I would write until 1AM and then I would watch M*A*S*H reruns until I went to bed. It worked for me.


    • M*A*S*H is a great choice for such tasks. I tend to jump between American Pickers and Big Bang Theory reruns – something completely different than the writing. Prepare to re-adopt your regimen when you reach those scenes in editing. I thought it would be easier than writing the first time but it’s not. :-/

      Liked by 1 person

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