I’ve noticed something of a pattern in my, and other people’s, approach to the conflicts of stories and the way the main characters suffer: there’s got to be a reason to it.
The idea is simple: a focal bad thing happening to someone needs to have some sort of reason, or else we look at the story, scratch our heads, and wonder what the point was: what lesson we were supposed to derive from this, what reason we’d have to read it again, what point it had in the narrative. Otherwise, it’s just randomly about suffering, and why would we want to read that? Note, though, that this is a specific sort of bad thing: either it’s central to the plot (in the case of a short story) or it does nothing whatsoever for the plot, and it has to be something that’s happening specifically to the character (or specifically not happening, if everyone but the character is getting some sort of benefit), or maybe to the character and a couple of her closest supporting characters. Impersonal forces like floods, fires, storms, ill luck (when used sparingly)—those tend to get a pass. This is more targeted bad things, often acts of malice.
Sometimes, bad things happen to people because that’s what it takes to get the plot going. By this bad thing happening to a focal or major character, to jump-start the plot, we assume that Something Will Be Done about the bad thing. If something isn’t done about the bad thing, or it doesn’t at least spark some sort of interesting characterization or lead to a better event—in short, if it isn’t requited with some sort of benefit either to character or to reader, we tend to call foul.
There is, of course, the idea of the character to whom the bad thing happens deserving it. The villain’s comeuppance at the end of the book? Justified. That one obnoxious side character finally getting shut up? ….okay, that probably depends on whether the narrative punishment fits the crime. Sometimes, though, it’s a lot harder to see just what the character might have done that justifies whatever happened: then people get a bit antsy, and start poking about for messages, or start seething at the author.
For some people, it’s fine if it’s for a metafictional purpose only—delivering a message, most often. In that sort of case, the story is definitely bad things happening to a good (possibly even capital-G Good) person, with the author actively using our ideas of unearned suffering to get us upset about the bad thing happening to the character, and thus trying to transfer our empathic reaction to whatever the problem we’re supposed to get fired up about is. Sometimes, the character doesn’t even really strike back, let alone succeed; any salvation she receives is from outside forces. Needless to say, this is also why so many people tend to be so mistrustful of fiction meant to convey a message: because it uses a dirty trick like this.
Unearned suffering, in moderation, does have its advantages. Tempered with the occasional windfall or partial victory (so as not to bring the audience to saturation) it can incite sympathy for the character in the audience, and offers a repayment in the end, usually by an improvement in circumstances for the character (even if it’s all internal, taking the form of mental fortitude or the like) or a proportional comeuppance for the antagonist(s). With a sufficiently light touch, even delivering a call to action against a problem in the real world can be done without alienating the audience. But not being able to earn the suffering by the end, or buying it off with too little, will often lead to the audience either finding messages you don’t intend them to find, assume their own crimes for which the character is being punished, or growling, “Who wants to read about this kind of thing anyway?”
Why? That part I have yet to understand. It could be because we see ourselves in these put-upon characters, or because we want to believe in a world where bad things happen for a reason, since then we can try to make sense of the reason. Perhaps it’s that the people who enjoy the schadenfreude feel guilty for doing so. Whatever it is, though, it’s something to keep closely in mind.