I know what you’re thinking. Nobody needs you to argue against sadism. It’s sadism. Everyone already knows it’s bad.
In the context of writing, though, I don’t think that’s totally true. Kurt Vonnegut has a list of 8 basics that he calls “Creative Writing 101,” and number 6 is this:
“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
I know obviously I’m in no position to argue with Kurt Vonnegut when it comes to writing, and I don’t want to — in fact I totally agree with this point. Writing is nothing without conflict. It’s important to put even the most charming characters — maybe even especially the most charming characters — into terrible situations, exactly for this reason, so that the reader gets a better idea of who they really are. (It also makes them more relatable. It’s better than reading about a character you really like just walking around and having a good day.)
But I disagree with the idea of that being sadism. And I know that seems nitpicky — it’s just a word he used to get your attention — but I’ve heard this idea elsewhere. A friend once told me that all writers are both sadists and masochists. That seemed like a bit of a melodramatic way to put it to me, but I also kind of got where they were coming from. It can be fun, really fun actually, to write about situations of conflict, because that’s where things get interesting! Since conflict is so central to writing, if you dislike writing about challenging situations, then you’re probably going to have a tough time writing any fiction at all. So the act of writing about these situations themselves — giving yourself that chance to really think about conflict — is probably what attracts a lot of people to writing in general. At least it is for me.
So there is pleasure to be found in putting characters into these situations. And this can seem weirdly close to a kind of sadism.
But this is where I think I disagree.
I’m not going to do that high-school-English-essay thing here where I give you the Merriam-Webster definition of something, but we all know that sadism is basically deriving enjoyment from the pain of others. I’d like to reiterate at this point that I’m a total amateur when it comes to writing and that I know about as much as any presumptuous undergrad with an English major can claim to know about it, because that’s all I am. So if you’re looking for a valid opinion from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, go buy a copy of On Writing or something like that. But it seems to me that writing about conflict, if you want it to be good, has a lot less to do with sadism and more to do with its opposite, with compassion.
Think about it: You want the reader to be right there with the character while this is happening. You want them to be so close to the character that when the character is driven into a serious situation of conflict and comes away changed, the reader comes away a little changed, too. That’s all writing is supposed to do. What does this necessitate if not compassion? If you’re just sitting there having fun while you torment this character, and that’s the only motivation behind any of it, then that’s not going to lead to any real end. Really caring for and thinking about the characters, even while you’re writing them into difficult situations, makes those situations more layered, even if that’s only happening subconsciously.
I didn’t even start thinking about this until pretty recently. People ask me every once in a while why I like writing; three or four times in school I’ve had to write essays about it. I never know what to say. I want the answer to be really complicated, and/or really passionate. Like I write to uncover the truths of the world, which isn’t true at all because I think you can find truth doing anything, or Writing helps me deal with the demons of my own subconscious, or the standard fallback, Writing is my passion/I need it like I need air/look at me I shed paper, I bleed typewriter ink if you can believe it. It’s different for everybody but for me, that’s kind of BS. The real answer is that whatever my reasons, I don’t really think about them too much. I think writing is really fun.
Like I said before, enjoying writing about conflict is a big part of that fun. I only realized pretty recently that that’s not because I enjoy causing my characters pain in and of itself. It’s because I love figuring out how to make conflict mean something. It’s like a big puzzle — sorting out how to fit it into the rest of the story, making sure it’s relevant and will mean something to somebody. This sounds technical but it really isn’t — it’s a matter of figuring out how to conjure up emotions out of completely nowhere, of looking at something as neutral as a piece of paper and somehow finding a way to make someone look at it and feel grieving or angry or relieved. That’s true emotion and there’s nothing technical about it, because if there were, then maybe it would be easier to become good at it. I believe in magic because when I read stuff by Katherine Anne Porter, by Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates and everyone else I look up to, I know I’m feeling it. They’ve figured out this impossible puzzle — they know how to teach me something, how to reach me and affect the way I think, even though they’ve never met me, never even seen me and never will. They’ve gotten close to something I might never touch, but it’s so worth trying.
I write because when I finish writing a story that I feel good about, it’s a feeling like nothing else I know: like I’ve gotten to know somebody who isn’t even real, but who matters anyway. Like me and them have worked together to say something that could maybe mean something to other people.
If you want to call it sadism, then fine. But the way I see it, writing is about understanding people and trying to show people how to understand you. And even if that’s an impossible puzzle, it’s a really fun one to mess around with, and I think that’s something people know — even if they only know it subconsciously, and “sadism” is the first word they can come up with for it.
Writing is obviously different for everybody, or else we would all be using it to say the same thing. For me, though, thinking about writing as an exercise in compassion has I think made my writing better than it used to be, and hopefully someday it will make me better as a person, too. I can’t say what other people use it for or how other people view it because I’m not them, but I know caring when I see it in other people’s work. This is just the way I think about writing personally these days, and I’m glad for it.