Aside from being insane procrastinators, staying-up-late-editing-ers, and insane coffee drinkers, one of the most common stereotypes of authors is the character killer/torturer. The jokes abound everywhere and are some of the most commonly shared memes that exist in the writing world.
In a recent post by Allison Tebo (author of the Tales of Ambia series and a contributer to the Villains Ever After series) with GloryWriters, she raised a concern regarding this humorous obsession. Her post, entitled Why Christian Authors Should Stop Joking about Torturing Their Characters, encapsulates what I think is food for thought. Whether you agree or disagree with her points or mine that I’m about to share, I recommend reading her words first.
In summary, her argument is “No suffering is ever funny,” and concludes that to even joke about making our characters suffer is wrong. The incapsulation really refers to someone on a Facebook post mentioning in regards to such a joke that they always pictured God like that, as someone who wakes up and throws dice to see who’s going to get tortured with what that day.
While this is a complicated issue and one that’s going to take some time to hash out, I want to say first of all that this is a very valid concern. Secondly, I want to say that I agree with the concept of what Allison is saying, and disagree with much of the execution.
1. Character Torture Jokes
I tend to “torture” my characters emotionally rather than physically and have killed more than a few off, but it’s not something that I do lightly. I have noticed a pressure on beginner writers that in order for them to be a “real writer” they need to have mass murders and kill counts. That is ridiculous. Not all of us are called to write stories about characters undergoing immense pain and losing their lives. And readers don’t want to read about that all the time either. Some of my favorite books as a child were ones in which the characters had idyllic lives and the worst thing that happened to them was having a sudden rainstorm while out enjoying the weather. (Okay, maybe not the worst thing, but you get the idea, I hope.) We need both idyllic books and also those that deal with the grit of life while showcasing hope. But that’s a discussion for another day.
My point is, you don’t need to torture characters in order to be a real writer.
That said, however, there is a reason those jokes and stereotypes exist. And I believe that most of us that laugh at them do so with tongue in cheek. Just as I, who struggle with anxiety and depression among other things, often laugh at jokes about those mental health issues. Because they’re relatable and told in a way that makes me feel better about things I deeply dislike about myself. Now, I don’t think that’s the reason authors laugh at those jokes. But my point remains that we don’t laugh entirely because it’s hilarious. If you think it’s hilarious to do horrible things to your characters, then you might be a psychopath. We laugh because it’s relatable and the stereotype is ridiculous. I think deep down inside, most of us grieve in some way over the pain we cause our characters. Whether this results in actual crying or a heaviness in our chest, it causes agony of some sort to destruct something we’ve created.
So should we joke about it?
This answer is for you to decide.
I find the jokes funny because I don’t believe them to actually be true. I don’t have a random name selector to decide which character gets tortured. Because we shouldn’t do such a thing at all just on a whim. Which brings me to my next point.
2. Should We Write about Character Suffering?
Obviously, this depends on you as a writer and your story. Because we shouldn’t just do it willy-nilly.
If suffering is a part of our writing, it needs to serve a greater purpose.
If a character must die, how does it impact the story? How does it impact the plot and the other characters? If it doesn’t advance the story and is only there for shock value, I think that is far greater a crime than laughing about torture jokes. Because as writers, our craft and our stories are very serious. We shouldn’t write for shock value, especially when it regards our characters suffering, being tortured, and dying.
Another important fact to consider is that our characters aren’t actually living, breathing people. If so, we shouldn’t even be having this conversation, because murder is a crime, regardless if you are a Christian or not. But since this should be an obvious fact, I’m going to move on to my third point, which I think is the greatest issue brought up in Allison’s post.
3. The God Who Heals
In Allison’s post, she brings up this instance and I quote:
In a Facebook group I lurk in, someone had posted a meme that went something like this:
AUTHORS: “Look at my character, I love them so much.”
ALSO AUTHORS: “Now watch me break them like a light stick. Look at them burn.”
I rolled my eyes and started to scroll away . . . then froze when I saw the top comment.
Someone had commented saying that they had always envisioned God like this: in other words, distantly cruel and even sadistic. They thought this joke was an accurate and realistic portrayal of God.Allison Tebo, Why Christians Should Stop Joking About Torturing their Characters
I am grieved that anyone should have this view of God. That is a failure on the part of the Church and is not even Biblical theology. I am by no means attacking this person, but want to address this question since it is a very sobering one and also one I think is worth bringing attention to.
God is not distantly cruel or sadistic. Reading through the Bible, it is clear that God is love just as He is just, merciful just as He is holy. From the beginning of Genesis when mankind falls into sin, God reveals His redemptive love of promising a Messiah who would save His people even as He casts Adam and Eve out of the garden for disobeying. Over and over in Scripture, God’s goodness and infinite mercy is show in equal measure to His justice and holy wrath. I am not going to bring up every instance here, but anyone can read the Bible and see this to be true.
Another issue here with this person’s view is that they make the mistake of comparing God to human authors. Which is a huge mistake.
Don’t misunderstand, I love the author analogy, but God cannot be compared to us. We are fallen and fallible. As writers, we make mistakes all the time. This is why editors exist. God as the Author not only knows the full story, but He makes absolutely NO mistakes and He says it all PERFECTLY the first and only time. God doesn’t sit around hem-hawing about who He’s going to torture, He already knows those who must suffer, and He promises to bring about good. See the stories of Joseph and Job and Jeremiah, among countless others.
This brings me to Allison’s point that “He is the Mender, not the Breaker.”
While I agree with much that she says regarding God and suffering, I disagree entirely on this point. Because Scripture does not say this anywhere.
I am quoting a friend I discussed this with since she put it so well, “[God] will break you for His purpose, but He also extends His healing hand.” There are endless examples of people in Scripture who suffer, some who I have mentioned. Others include many of Christ’s disciples, His prophets, and all of the martyrs. Even Christ Himself.
There is no better example than this one. Christ suffered far more than anyone else has on this earth and BY the hand of His loving Father! Christ bore the ENTIRETY of God’s wrath in OUR place. He was broken and bruised for our transgressions. And by His power, He healed and resurrected and continues to heal and forgive His people.
Does God allow bad things to happen to people? Yes. But God isn’t the one who executes these bad things, because He is a good God. A wonderful example is shown in Job, where Job suffers mightily and God allows Satan to do pretty much anything to Job, except kill him. (For those concerned, God controls even Satan. No one is out from God’s authority, rest assured.) Thankfully, Job’s story doesn’t end there. God shows Job His glory and restores even more than Job had.
God breaks. He also mends. And He does all of this to serve a great purpose.
Our suffering isn’t meaningless. And neither should your characters’ be.
Some of my favorite stories are full of suffering. And I love them because of the healing and hope that are shown at the end. That is the purpose of suffering. Without suffering, we don’t need to be healed.
In closing, I want to remind you that writing about characters suffering isn’t something we should take lightly. Like the trials in our own lives, it must serve a greater purpose. Whether we joke about it or not, we must never assume that God thinks about us in the way we think about our characters, because that is not theology. God is perfect, suffering is not a joke to Him. Suffering exists because we majorly screwed up, not because He did. He offers hope and healing, and as writers made in His image, we must show the same in our writing. If your characters suffer, remember that it must have a purpose. Our calling as writers is a serious thing. We may laugh at parts of it, but at the end of the day, it isn’t a joke.
If this is your calling to write about suffering, write about it. And if you want to laugh at stereotypes, do so. But remember that suffering must serve a greater purpose. If we fail at that, it doesn’t matter if we joke about it or not. Because our stories will last far longer in peoples’ memories than that funny meme.
Write about suffering. But remember to also write about the God who heals.