“Who hurts the most?” asks Orson Scott Card, in his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. “Chances are that it is among the characters who are in pain that you will find your main character.”
He has a good point. Pick up just about any work of classic literature, and you’ll find a protagonist whose actions are shaped by their suffering. Even many best-loved children’s books share this pattern. I’m reminded of Digory in The Magician’s Nephew, who braves a dangerous quest in order to save his dying mother; or Harry Potter, whose parents were killed by the evil Lord Voldemort. There’s Mary in The Secret Garden, who boldly asks for “a bit of earth” to call her own, because everything she knows has been stripped away from her. And there’s the delightful Anne Shirley, who attempts to escape her perceived identity of unwanted, ugly orphan in a myriad of humorous, ill-fated ways.
Pain isn’t peripheral to these heroes and heroines. It has profoundly shaped their past, and continues to inform their present actions.
So often, in our real lives, we go to great lengths to avoid suffering. Why then, as readers, do we cherish stories that hold so much hurt?
Quite simply, because we see ourselves in them. Despite our attempts to evade it, every one of us has experienced suffering in one form or another. And all these wounds provoke a question: What do I do with this burden of grief? Where do I go with my pain?
Literary characters demonstrate a wide range of answers to the problem of pain. Looking again at The Secret Garden, we see Lord Craven trying to numb and ignore his suffering, while his son Colin chooses to wallow in it. Queen Jadis in The Magician’s Nephew, having been shamed by her sister, can think of nothing but her own dramatic revenge. Perhaps most horrifying are the characters who, like Tolkein’s Denethor, give in to the pride of despair. Their pain consumes them to such an extent that they relinquish all hope. They place themselves as the god of their narrative; they believe that they know the outcome, and that it’s a terrible one…so they may as well end up dead sooner rather than later.
Authors often use these thrashing, bitter, woebegone people to add tension and depth to their plot. But, by and large, these are not the characters that make the reader fall in love with the story itself. For we don’t just read because we hurt; we also read because we hope. The characters that root themselves most deeply in our hearts are those who confront the pain in their lives with humility and courage—and often, with gentle good humor. They don’t deny their hurt, but they refuse to let it have the last word, either. Their suffering marks them, but it does not rule them. As a result, they are not shriveled up or beaten down, but brilliantly transformed. Their scars are like lancet windows in a castle wall that let the light shine through.
An Entrance for Light
When I think of this concept, these radiant scars, I’m reminded of early Renaissance depictions of Francis of Assisi. According to medieval legend, this Italian saint identified with the crucified Christ so intensely that, near the end of his life, he developed scars in his hands, feet, and side analogous to those of Jesus: the stigmata. Even though this part of Francis’ biography may be an invention, I’m struck by the way great artists like Giotto and Taddeo Gaddi represented it. They consistently picture the stigmata emanating from Christ like golden strands, tethering Francis to the Lord he loves. Francis’ wounds become points of entrance for the light of Christ, and in turn reflect that light, like a mirror, toward heaven.
Pain, in itself, doesn’t shine. But those dark, leaden places can be transformed by redemptive light. And isn’t that exactly what we’re rooting for in the lives of the characters we love? We identify with their initial predicament, but we certainly don’t want them to stay there, unchanged. We want to see them find happiness, and grow into maturity. There’s a deep satisfaction when Digory faces down the evil witch and his self-serving uncle, and becomes whole and happy again (and eventually one of the great kings of Narnia). We celebrate with Mary as her “quite contrary” heart begins to thaw and blossom, right along with the garden she tends. We cheer for these characters because we want to know that our grief doesn’t need to have the final word.
A Chance for Restoration
What constitutes a “happy ending”? Victory, joy, a sense that all is well. Or at the very least, a sense of meaning behind the wrongs suffered. And not just for the central characters. The best “happy endings” are the ones that touch not only the protagonists, but also those around them. Families, communities, even entire kingdoms, are restored by the sacrificial journeys of the hero or heroine. When Harry conquers Lord Voldemort, both magical and “Muggle” worlds are set free from the dark wizard’s power. Thanks to an orphaned girl named Anne, old enemies are reconciled, broken hearts find love, disconsolate children are given hope, and the town of Avonlea is forever changed.
“A character in pain is a character who wants things to change,” Card concludes. Pain always provokes a response. In the very best of stories—and in our own stories, by God’s grace—it will lead, not to retreat or revenge, but to actions of quiet courage that grow our souls and give light to those around us.