Why I Don’t Live Off the Tears of My Readers

Wjy O dpm

You see it everywhere in the writing community. It’s on t-shirts, mugs, and prints, in tweets and bios, etc. People say they love destroying feels, they drink the tears of their readers, they live for making their readers cry, and many other forms of the same idea.

I don’t think it is said in a way that is meant to be malicious or uncaring. But I think it is possible that it is said without giving thought to the future implications for both reader and author.

I want to take my job seriously

I love writing, and if I am a professional author I need to be considerate of my audience, who enables me to do what I love. Do some people like having their feels destroyed? Yes. Double yes. It’s not always bad. But the thing that separates a good writer from a manipulative writer is how they do it. If you’ve read enough, nine times out of ten you can tell when a writer is doing something just to create “feels” and not to serve the story. And that’s what I call unprofessional writing.

I understand my words have power

Let me tell you a good thing and a bad thing. Writers have lots of power. (Congratulations! You may now consider those plans to take over the world!) However, that means you have a responsibility to use that power well. You have a chance to influence your audience (which could be the world) for good or for bad, and that is not something anyone should take flippantly. When a reader picks up your book, it is always an honor. They are giving you a piece of their time, to hear your thoughts and see things through your eyes, and while we can get used to this, we shouldn’t forget that it is a privilege they are giving us.

I have known enough sorrow to have empathy

Do my characters die? Oh yes. Sometimes they die and they die bravely, they die too young, they die when they are the last people you want to see die. Sometimes they die because I have to work through grief of my own.

But that does not mean I enjoy it. Every death hurts. It should hurt. I have lost people I’ve known and loved, and that has taught me to be careful not to take character deaths for granted in a story. I will not write a death if it does not further the story, is not required for realism, or does not have a glimmer of hope. And I will definitely not go into unnecessary detail just for effect.

The story is paramount

The story must be served first. Even if it is sure to bring down a hailstorm of feels, if you put it in there with no other purpose, I promise you, you have shot yourself in the foot.

It’s all about the attitude

In media nowadays, I think human life has been cheapened. People die simply to make the story more interesting, the feels deeper, the stakes personally higher for the protagonist. Few people seem to care about the victim in a murder mystery—it’s all about the brains of the detective. In an adventure book all sorts of minor and secondary characters die just to plump up the action and make you fear more for what the antagonist will do to protagonist. Writers all around mwahaha about the characters they are going to kill and throw around terms like ‘I killed a character today’ or ‘I kill most of my characters’ with little thought.

My problem is not with death in stories. We writers tackle hard subjects that require it, and I think we should. My problem is with an increasingly callous attitude towards death—something that should never be taken lightly because it doesn’t stop with the authors. If the authors become callous, so will the readers. You see it in effect already. Our culture is incredibly callous towards death. Just look at the kind of media that is being consumed wholesale.

We authors have the ability to make or break our culture with what we write, how we write, and what attitude we choose to write with.

And that’s something we can’t just joke about.

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13 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Live Off the Tears of My Readers

  1. THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS!

    Seriously, I was starting to wonder if I was the only writer who doesn’t enjoy killing characters and destroying feels/having my feels destroyed. I don’t want my stories to feel unrealistic–death happens and the villain often leaves it in his/her wake–and I don’t want to *not* kill a character who might need to die just because I love him. but on the other hand, I also don’t want to kill a character just because it’s expected.

    I attended a panel at GenCon last year on killing characters, and they made the very good point that there are far worse things we can do to our characters than kill them. Not that I want horrible torture to become the norm, either, but it’s worth thinking about other ways to create “feels” that might do more for the story in the long-term.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! (And thank you!) The story needs to be served first, which sometimes means a character has to die, but I feel there’s an unhealthy trend (probably helped by GoT and co.) with killing for effect and for “destroying feels”. And yes, death should not be the go-to for creating “feels”…there are plenty of good ways to do it if you take the time to write well. Thanks for your input!
      🙂

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  2. This is really true. I killed off a certain character in my story who, if I were writing it now, I probably wouldn’t have. My sister cried over it, and actually seeing someone look visibly upset over something you wrote, you *did*, is rather sobering. Thank you for bringing this up. It’s a good conversation for writers to have. 🙂

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    1. It can be very sobering. I know for one I have had many people in tears over deaths etc. in my books, but I try never to let the deaths come flippantly from me. Once you lose respect for life (real or hypothetical) you are in trouble. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Meg

    Yes! Absolutely.
    The death of a character can communicate the preciousness of life, if handled properly, or cheapen it. Underlying worldview is everything.

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  4. You make some excellent points here, Emily. It’s one thing if there’s a purpose to a character’s death, but when there isn’t, it makes readers (or you, if you’re the reader) question why it happened. (After they recovered from their stomped and crushed feels, of course…) I admit to killing off a character in my WIP, and I have my reasons for doing it. I wasn’t happy that this character had to go, but I had always seen it happening – and I think readers will understand, especially since said character goes down the way he wanted to: by protecting the people he cares about.

    But yes to the desensitizing that frequent character deaths and feels-destroying can do. As writers, we have to be careful and thoughtful about things like that. Everything in our stories – including any violence or death – can’t just be thrown in.

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    1. Exactly. And readers can tell when the author is moved or not moved by the death-and it can make all the difference in the world. It’s just one of those things we need to stop and think about every so often.
      It sounds like your character has a fine, noble death…let me know if you ever need a beta reader! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Lucy

    What an excellent, thoughtfully written article. I hope this gets shared often! it presents a great perspective for writers, especially young writers. Writing is a powerful thing, and writing that, abuses that power is very destructive. Thank you, Emily!

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  6. Pingback: Junishness {2016} | The Road of a Writer

  7. Kyle Robert Shultz

    Wow. This blew me away. I’ve never heard an author share thoughts like this before. I joke sometimes about wanting to toy with the emotions of my readers, but honestly, I don’t want to be flippant about death – even in a fictional context. I’ve suffered deep loss, so it’s not something I take lightly. And I agree whole-heartedly about the responsibility of an author to use their gift wisely. Not enough people consider that.

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