Spoiler Alert: The short answer is “there is no short answer.”
A topic being brought up a lot, as of late, has been the anime series, Magical Girl Site, and its seemingly extreme emphasis on the absolute misery of the main character (and, based on my cursory research, basically the entire main cast). I’ll start with a disclaimer in saying I’ve not watched it and don’t intend to. I’m sure that’ll disappoint someone, but given what we tend to cover, around here, it shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Historically, the bulk of what we talk about, on this site, is relatively light. Some might call it fluff. And that wouldn’t be an entirely unfair assessment. A large part of my own drive is trying to look at said “fluff” to find the deeper layers of complexity that are often overlooked because of preconceptions about their particular genre and often-employed tropes.
But I digress. The question of the day is one I’ve honestly found interesting since I was in college for creative writing. One constant that I’ve been told is the necessity of the characters to suffer. “In order to grow, they must suffer,” they always said. “The interesting way to get your character to evolve is to chase them up a tree and throw rocks at them.” And, in fact, there are some stories out there that are only made possible by the extent to which they lean on a character’s suffering. But how necessary is this? And is there a point where even if the answer is “definitely,” the net result is “too much”?
First of all, I think that boils down to a misconception. Simply put, we aren’t wired that way. Yes, suffering can lead to growth, but it can also cause a character to regress, rather than grow. Furthermore, suffering is only one of many ways people can evolve. As a general rule, most personal growth can actually be traced back to consequence. People learn and grow based on consequences of their decisions and the decisions of those around them. But consequences don’t necessarily have to produce suffering. They don’t even have to be negative, really. Though for the sake of “interesting” storytelling, they usually are at least the latter.
So why do many assume that characters must suffer in order to grow? Well… frankly because everyone loves that kind of thing. Characters overcoming adversity and blah blah blah, you get the idea. It’s a formula that just works. And since it’s been used so much, people just kind of grew to assume that that’s how things were. I would also argue that there’s some confusion regarding the difference between “suffering” and a character just dealing with negative emotions. Suffering, at least to me, is a more of a consistent pattern of total misery. Throughout your story, it’s probably best that your characters experience negative emotion at some point. Even (and especially) incredibly strong ones. But suffering is a different story altogether. It’s more disturbing. Uncomfortable. And thus it’s slippery terrain.
Then at what point does suffering become a necessity? Well, that really depends on your story. Sometimes suffering isn’t so much used to spurn a character’s growth, so much as to catalyze a discussion around the work. Let’s look at Yuki Yuna wa Yusha de Aru, for one example (I know. Broken Record. But I legitimately cannot sing its praises enough). The characters of that show suffer immensely.
But it’s all for the narrative purpose of deconstructing the concept of making young girls fight unholy evils as magical girls, tying the system to one that essentially turns them into human sacrifices… minus that pesky “dying” part (at least initially), which ironically makes it even worse. In doing so, it’s actually painting a picture of just how horrible the idea of a magical girl is when you really step back and strip the notion down to its most basic elements. And it’s probably also commenting on the culture around magical girls, at least to some extent. That is an interesting discussion, only made possible by observing the sacrifices the girls make and the suffering it brings them throughout the course of the story.
So there you have it. A simple and straightforward answer. Suffering isn’t necessary but can enhance your story if employed properly as a storytelling tool. Still, there’s the other question looming over the subject. When is it too much? Obviously, misery in fiction does not function the same way it does in real life. Any real person put through the same trauma conga line as some fictional characters would be utterly broken before the end of the story, no matter what their mental fortitude. We’re just not built to endure that kind of abuse. Yet, in fiction, those lines blur. The characters aren’t real so we can explore these things more safely and feel perfectly comfortable torturing them. Right? Well, that’s where the question comes up. How much is too much?
Personally, I have a very low tolerance for suffering and bleakness. I don’t possess that “off switch” that lets me disconnect emotionally. But, honestly, I wouldn’t want to do that anyway. The point of stories, for me, is to get emotionally invested. I just don’t have any obligation to subject myself to something I know is going to leave me in a negative space because I’m a highly emotional person. When I’m upset, I stay that way. For days. Sometimes weeks. Those thoughts will keep swirling around in my head and won’t go away, no matter how much I vent or talk about them or drown them with lighter stuff. And I don’t need that. It’s not good for me. It’s unhealthy. So I generally avoid things I know are going to lay it on thick with the misery until I have some sort of confirmation that things right themselves at some point in the story. Or at least they level out. But that’s a personal issue. And that’s the point. “Too much” is entirely dependant on the individual.
With that being said, there probably is a certain point where it gets less “awful” and approaches the bounds of downright silliness. A series that goes out of its way to make the viewer uncomfortable has its place. It’s not necessarily a bad thing as it can add to the aforementioned discussion about the work. But works that try too hard run the risk of things getting awful to the point of comedy. Suffice it to say, one should probably avoid making things so ridiculously awful that it becomes impossible to take seriously at all. It’s an effect that’s perfectly (if unintentionally) captured in a scene with, of all characters, The Joker.
The last thing I really want to bring up is intent. Perhaps my biggest pet peeve in fiction writing is when tragedy and misery are used for no purpose other than to stir up the audience’s emotions. It annoys me more as a writer than a viewer, primarily because of the sheer laziness of the trope. But, as a viewer, I’d be annoyed because then I’ll have just wasted my time watching something that existed solely for the purpose of being awful. And, let’s be honest, who wants that?
If you’re going to subject your audience to misery, you’d better have a good reason, narratively. No one sane just wants to watch unyielding suffering for its own sake. Even (most) horror movies understand that. The point doesn’t even have to be moralistic, per se. Just some sort of overall meaning that goes beyond “The creator wanted me to feel disturbed/sad/mad.” Because odds are, if that turns out to be the case, we’re going to be angry. Just not at what they wanted us to get angry about. A commentary on something. A deconstruction. A parody. Whatever. Anything that goes beyond awfulness for the sake of being awful.
This also extends to tragic backstories. Preferably these aren’t used solely to make us sympathize with the character, and instead gives us a little insight into how they operate and what led them to become who they are. Not necessarily justifying it. But at least explaining it. Tragic backstories tend to be a crutch, used to make us feel bad for characters. It’s especially common with villains who writers can’t think of another way to make sympathetic. Of course, this can backfire tremendously. However, I do think that’s a whole other discussion for a different article.
And that’s it, really. My rambling little thread in this larger discussion. With all that said, I haven’t the slightest clue to what end Magical Girl Site intends to utilize its suffering. From what I’ve managed to read, it doesn’t appear to have a point beyond just being as awful as humanly possible. Though I suppose one could argue that it’s just another story meant to illustrate the depravity of mankind. But that’s just a guess and I could be completely wrong. Even so, I’m honestly good with finding out through others, here. There’s been a lot of interesting discussion about it on Twitter, lately, so I figured I’d throw in my two cents from the perspective of someone on the outside. Hope you found that enjoyable and stuff.
If you want to see Magical Girl Site for yourself and come to your own conclusions, it’s streaming on Amazon. That’s all for me, folks. As always, thanks for reading. Keep up the Awesome.