Why We Like Fiction That Makes Us Le Miserable

Ann Hathaway as Fantine, crying

I dreamed a dream and then I diiiiiiiiiiied

When discussing the finalists of a local writing competition, my companion had to point out to me “All the ones that are getting the most points are the ones where horrible things happen.”

True enough, a lot of the finalist stories included themes of death, regret, depression, suicide, madness and other weighty topics, and none of them really seemed to propose that the characters therein or the reader would be having a great fun time. Why were they getting awards, then, she wondered? What drove the judges to stamp their acclaim on the fiction that had broken their heart?

I think this is The Newbery Medal Effect at work, a rule that simply states “If there’s some sort of award sticker on the cover, somebody in the book must die.” If something has gotten acclaim, critical or otherwise, one must assume that at some point it’s going to rip out the audiences’ hearts and grind them under its figurative heels.

I mean, look at my recent escapades into fiction, for crying out loud. I’m waiting patiently for the third season of Game of Thrones, a series notorious for hooking its audience and then pulling the rug of emotional stability out from underneath them. In the words of Mark Oshiro, who inspired this whole ‘consume media and then screech about it eloquently on the internet’ thing in the first place, I am not prepared. And I’ve read the third book, on which it is based, so I know what’s going to happen. This should make me doubly terrified for the trauma that is to come, but really I’m just doubly excited. I am voluntarily waltzing towards emotional pain of both myself and George R. R. Martin’s characters.

Alright Alex, you ask now, is that it? Are you a sadist? Do you like watching people suffer? The answer is that when it comes to fiction we are all sadists by default, because without a certain degree of Schadenfreude in the creators and the audience we wouldn’t have a fiction industry to begin with.

In continuing with my examples, I’m also watching Fate/Zero, a sort of mythological Hunger Games scenario if you will, wherein seven mages summon the ‘Heroic Spirit’ of some sort of legendary figure to fight as their champion in a war for an omnipotent wish-granting device. From the premise alone, i.e. only one team can win at the end, you are handed on a silver platter the sudden realisation that at least six characters, who you will be introduced and attached to, will be dying for your viewing pleasure. And that’s just the summoned figures — there’s also the mages and their own traumas, tragic backstories, horrible injuries and everything else that goes with fighting in a war. With magic as a bonus. Again, I am plunging headfirst into the series knowing full well it’s going to hurt me.

Oh, and then there’s Supernatural, which I have many seasons to catch up on—however, I am at the vantage point where I can safely watch the people who are watching it, and for the most part all I’m observing is a spiral into despair as the Winchester brothers trudge towards their ninth season with all the weight of their eight years of torment and torture dragging on their backs. Merlin ended recently with a main character death. Being Madoka Magica is suffering, yet it is one of my favourite shows. Les Miserablés, an opera about people being miserable (not that you’d infer it from the title at all), has just hauled away millions at the box office as well as a handful of Oscars. Shakespeare’s tragedies are his most revered works. Five words: The Fault in Our Stars.

Mami of Madoka Magica, framed by the jaws that bite he head off

This was the part we all screamed “NO” for the first time, and yet the part we all decided it was going to be a great show

What are we doing? Why do we constantly flock to media that breaks our hearts?

Well, the answer is thus: no pain, no gain. Without pathos there is no story.

It’s very difficult to get emotionally hooked to a tale about ordinary people going about their everyday business and not having any troubles at all. Characters in peril create tension, and give the reader or viewer incentive to keep going and find out what happens to them. This is the most basic rule of storytelling. As Melina Marchetta says, a good way to kick off a story is to start with a character… and then take something away from them.

And of course we’re going to get attached the characters with everything going wrong for them. Humans come with varying capacities for empathy, but generally speaking we’re more likely to make an emotional attachment to someone (even if they aren’t real) if they’re going through Hell than if they’re skipping through a dandelion field. I think it’s an amazing experience just in that: I mean look at this, we’re having real feelings about made-up people. Doesn’t that speak of a kind of magic?

The reason that sad books win prizes is because they have transcended what they are and crossed over into the mystical realm of true fictional power: this story, which never happened about people who never existed, made its readers feel. The best books, one of the writers at this local award said, are the ones that give you a physical reaction. So look out, said he, for books that give you goosebumps or make you cry or make you feel ill or blush, or feel like punching though the pages, grabbing the characters by the face and throttling them/giving them a blanket and a cup of tea and taking them away from their situation and their writers for a bit.

It’s truly remarkable that we can cry real tears over fictional things, and we recognise this power and this cleverness in its execution, and that, I think, is why we keep going back, keep watching/reading, keep waiting for shows and novels and films that we know are going to send tears cascading down our cheeks by the end. It’s a spiritual experience—perhaps that’s the wrong word, but hey. It’s also a tribal one, getting to share the pain with a group of like-minded people who enjoy the same stuff, and cry onto each other’s shoulders whether virtually or in real life. Fiction gives us an excuse and a channel to release emotion we don’t normally get to, I suppose.

And at the same time, we can still continue on with our daily lives without them being physically impacted, because as aforementioned, these terrible things never happened, least of all to us. It is, however, an exercise in sympathy and empathy, presented in an overall harmless way. And it exposes partakers in fiction to situations and emotions they wouldn’t have felt otherwise, and what are humans without feeling? (Don’t answer that. It’s a psychological discussion that belongs tacked onto a less poetic and wholly rhetorical question)

So this, ladies and gentlemen, is why we find ourselves enveloping ourselves in works of fantasy that punch us in the heart, time and again, as individuals and a society. It’s also why saying “This book completely stole my heart, hooked me emotionally, and then destroyed me without abandon. I highly recommend it” makes perfect sense.

The Afictionado herself, passed out underneath a copy of 'A Storm of Swords'

This is what my life has become


Filed under Pop Culture Ponderings

9 responses to “Why We Like Fiction That Makes Us Le Miserable

  1. I’m a sucker for emotional books and movies. I’m also guilty of tormenting my characters. I feel that a right amount of turmoil makes a good ending a lot more satisfying. 🙂

    Also… I too yelled “NO” when Mami got killed, but that’s when I knew I was hooked.

    • That’s a good point! A story full of emotion turmoil does give the audience a bigger and happier sigh of relief in the end (assuming, of course, that it all ends well!) Mami’s death wasn’t a surprise to me (hooray for the internet) but everyone else’s really threw me and affected me, especially Sayaka’s, since I had such a connection with her =.= Still, though, I acknowledge how great the writing was, as it was taking away one of my favourite characters

  2. I loved the caption on that first photo. 😀

    It’s funny – for someone who wants to be a comedian/humor writer someday, I love sad/bittersweet parts of books. I like getting the feels about characters.

    I just started reading Game of Thrones and *gulp* Storm of Swords… 2? Is it so big that it’s in two parts?

    • A Storm of Swords is one big that was too fat to be bound as one book XD It’s actually my favourite so far, though there’s quite a few grip-the-book-and-scream-a-bit moments. I agree with you–I love getting the feels.

  3. There are exceptions, though. I mean, yes, I’m fiercely attached to every piece of art or entertainment that made me feel sad or shocked, but there are shows that could go on and on and on with no drama and could keep you watching them, like K-On!. I would watch ten seasons of it, even with no major dramatic plot twist. Just because it’s funny and well crafted.

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