Are writers sadists?

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“Every book I’ve ever written ends with someone dying; every one. Really nice people too. Like the book about Helen, the school teacher. I killed her the day before summer vacation. How cruel is that?”

–         Karen Eiffel, Stranger Than Fiction

“I’d really like to see him,” he added. “Dustfinger, I mean. Naturally I’m sorry now that I thought up such an unhappy ending for the poor fellow, but it somehow seemed right for him.”

–         Fenoglio in Inkheart, by Cornelia Funke

Admit it. You love writing in the sad bits, the death scenes, the broken hearts. I know, because I do, too. But why? Why do we so enjoy torturing characters we’ve come to love? I mean, we wouldn’t do that in real life. We’re all pretty good people, right?

But if the author is good, how come bad things happen to good characters?

Because that’s the Way Things Are. It wouldn’t be realistic if I wrote it otherwise.

Then why are you writing it, doofus? Save yourself the trouble of making up sad stories and just stick with true ones.

Maybe I just like the control. We all like to play God.

Baloney sandwiches. You know perfectly well that after you have created your characters, you lose control of them completely.

Fine. Then I guess because…it’s beautiful, somehow.

Beautiful? What kind of a sick person are you? You think it’s beautiful for a person to have their heart ripped in two?

I don’t know. Something about it is.

My theory is this. We sense beauty in these situations and misinterpret it, thinking darkness is beautiful. But really, pain is beautiful only because it is evidence of something good. We love to write about the grieving widower because it illustrates how much he loved his wife. We love writing about the child dying of cancer because it illustrates how precious life is. It’s that love, that preciousness, that is beautiful. We have trouble seeing goodness if all is well, but when we take something away from a character, or threaten to take it, we prove the worth of that thing by the character’s reaction.

Say you have the chance to meet your protagonist (as did the authors in the quotes above) – to enter your story at its darkest moment. You kneel beside your hero as he coughs up blood, look into his slightly glassy eyes, and tell him everything is going to be okay. You wouldn’t give him any details, of course – that he’ll overcome the villain at the last moment – that would ruin the ending. You wouldn’t even want him to believe the part about everything being okay, not really. You’d just want to give him the tiniest glimmer of hope. Not enough to banish his fear, not enough to lift the deepening despair; just enough to keep him fighting. To push himself off the floor and pick up his sword.

And even if you prefer sad endings, and he does die, the point remains – that he picked up his sword. He didn’t give up, because there was something worth fighting for.

And that is beautiful.

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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35 Comments

  1. Wow. So good I had to read it twice. I never thought of pain like that before. Ver profound and 5*.

  2. Thanks for sharing this insight. It’s very helpful to see how “real” writers think and go about their craft.

  3. I really enjoyed your post. I’m not one for dark endings. I see them all the time and they make me cringe. If I am left depressed at the end of a book I often question why I read it in the first place.

    I don’t think you have to kill off your protagonist to make it realistic. I like to think of bittersweet endings like the end of Pirates of the Caribbean At the World’s End with Will Turner only able to see Elizabeth Swann once every 10 years. That is not Happily Ever After but it is satisfying.

    • I agree with you completely about dark endings – and I’m planning another post to that effect. But I disagree on At Worlds End – I didn’t find it satisfying at all! I guess because I had it all worked out how the movie would end before I saw the ending – Barbosa would stab the heart and get the Flying Dutchess, Cap’n Jack would keep the Black Pearl, and Will and Elizabeth would co-captain that ship she had (whatever it was called). It was perfect! So you can imaging my irritation when it ended the way it did. *Sigh*

  4. I really like the points you make here. And, so true, when we see the grief, we know there was love behind it. When we see the suffering, we remember there were better times.
    I browbeat myself often for my darkness. Guess I will just let things go where they go and enjoy the ride.
    Thank you, Stephanie, for your insight.

    • Don’t browbeat yourself – I think darkness is necessary in the vast majority of stories. It’s how you end it that makes the difference – which I’ll expound on in a later post. (Also depending on the length of the story, but that is another subject).

  5. Had to share this on my FB wall, brilliant post! And beautiful.

  6. Awesome post!!!

    It is truly beautiful when a character is completely out of the writer’s control, in a very unexpected way. Mentally, somewhere in the back of my mind, I know that I’m making my characters do what they do, but there are a couple, Charlie off of Crazy, Bria who is in everything I write even if I never mention her name, that are much more real than that. When I write them, I usually forget that it was my idea for them to fight and die for something, or whatever ends up happening.

    Torturing, killing, whatever it happens to be, it is sadly beautiful. My goal is to make it so real that I cry though, something I haven’t managed to do. I’m pretty sure I will when I eventually decide to stop bringing Bria back and kill her for the last time. I’ve let myself get far too attached to her. lol

    I also very much enjoy torturing and killing characters I hate. Haha yeah, I’m evil like that. I actually have a book that I work on only when I need to vent against people I don’t like very much.

    • I’ve only cried twice at things I’ve written – and both were happy things. One was a girl being reunited with the family she thought she’d never see again, the other was a creature being freed from a curse and finding God. It’s the happy things that get me, expecially tiny little unexpected acts of kindness amidst horrible cruelty.

      I hope you don’t kill Bria for the last time – I hope you at least leave doubt as to whether or not she is really dead. But I’m awefully sentimental.

      Thanks for reading!

      • Those sound like really awesome scenes!

        If I end up killing Bria off I’ll probably leave a lot of doubt, she deserves a really cool and mysterious death after all I’m putting her through.

  7. I find my job as the writer is to throw obstacles in the way of my protag that stop him/her from reaching their desired goals. Sadistic? Maybe. But I also believe that each obstacle I throw out there can be overcome. Once it’s out there, my protag and I try to figure out how to overcome it. Then it starts all over again!
    So their struggle and pain becomes an illustration of their character. Character is most evident in the face of struggle, I find. The choices they make determine who they really are. Or want to be.
    I don’t enjoy dark endings for dark endings sakes. If it makes sense in the greater context, fine. But just to do it is to cheat yourself, as a writer, and the readership.
    Super post of yours. Plenty of food for thougt there.

  8. hmm.. true. i often wondered why i wrote such sad stories. and also why every story every told/written has some huge twist which could have easily been avoided in the first twenty minutes itself. but then i realized that without a twist, without a sad change of events, there would be o story to tell. and what you say adds to that idea. 🙂

  9. I agree. We are sadists.

    Sometimes I save time and buy dolls. I’ll heat up miniature pokers and brand them all with some terrible nickname.

    The stories are much more fulfilling, though. Really.

    Enjoyed,
    D

  10. Dark endings are only okay if there is going to be a sequel.

    When my characters are in turmoil, all I do is think about them. I can’t concentrate on anything. I look forward to when I can write them out of it. Sometimes days go by before they (and I) get relief. But then, that relief is so sweet, it’s all worth it.

    • I’m kind of the opposite, when they’re in turmoil I can’t stop thinking about them and I can’t concentrate, but I’m only thinking of how to complicate the turmoil.

    • Fully agreed on the sequel thing. On the other hand, dark endings in short stories are an entirely different thing.

      I’m impressed – I’m not as emotionally connected to my characters as you are. I know how it’s going to end, so I guess I don’t worry about them.

      • Yes, short stories with dark endings work for me.
        And you’re better off not being so emotionally connected. I walk around for weeks with that uneasy feeling my chest. Worrying about fictional characters! Crazy! Sometimes I know how it will end and sometimes I don’t, but it doesn’t matter. I feel their pain regardless.

        • I think that’s really cool actually. Except for the fact that it stresses you out, haha. Don’t worry about crazy. You can’t be a writer without being a little crazy.

      • I’ve got to disagree, dark endings can be the end of a book. I mean, it shouldn’t be tragic, but I’m not all for happily ever after. =]

        • I guess it depends on the defininition of “dark” – if a few characters (even main characters) die, that’s alright, even necessary sometimes. But when there is no victory, no hope at all – what’s the point? A short stroy with a dark ending might teach a lesson. But a full-length novel with no victory at the end just seems like an abuse of power – like dragging your reader through mud and despair just because you can.

          This deserves more discussion!

      • And yes, to be a writer I believe you have to be crazy. I know I am.

        • This is an actual conversation I had with my sister once:

          ME: “I think I’m crazy.”
          SISTER: “I think all writers, artists, and musicians are crazy in some way.”
          ME: “And UPS guys. They wear those shorts. What is that about?”

  11. Well, I’m really messed up. I’m stuck in mud with a dark ending that doesn’t end well for anyone. The sequel isn’t much better and the third is more of a prequel anyway. So my readers are screwed.

  12. *cannot help but laugh at that, though it is a good laugh* Well put. I’ve always wondered at my apparent authorial sadism. You have given me a different perspective on it, though, and one that helps me understand why some sadism in literature disturbs me so deeply, while sometimes it does not.

  13. Pingback: Why Do You Think Writers Spend So Much Time Trying to Reassure Everyone That They’re Not Sadists? « platform thing

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