Stories need conflict. This generally means that things must go wrong for the protagonist before they go right. But how far wrong? Bad things must happen, but how many bad things must there be to earn something good? And just exactly how bad must the bad things get?
There is no single simple answer to this, basically because people – readers and writers, both – vary widely in their tolerance for punishment. The characters in stories similarly vary widely in how much they can take, depending on what attributes and resources they’ve been given. The context of any given adverse event varies as well. The death of a character’s mother, for example, might become anything from a life-shattering tragedy to a bittersweet farewell, or even a welcome relief – depending on the context and on the character.
Readers obviously get to know what to expect from different authors and can deal with the reward vs punishment issue by simply choosing what they read. I recently wrapped up the second of two linked fantasy trilogies by Robin Hobb – involving Fitz and the Fool, if you know her work – with a sigh of relief because I realized that Hobb’s punishment/reward ratio is really a bit out of my personal comfort zone. Robin Hobb is a superb writer. Anyone inclined to look down on genre fiction in general, or fantasy in particular, should try some of hers. But she’s awfully hard on poor Fitz in those six books. And it isn’t just physical pain and suffering, either, there are also the mistakes the character makes, the choices that lead predictably to bad consequences, the way other characters are forever being angry with him and blaming him for things. I did enjoy those two trilogies, but I would have enjoyed them more if they were a bit less harrowing – or if Hobb had put in a bit more reward to balance all the punishment.
And this is an important point: Punishment from a reader’s perspective can come in many different forms, as can reward. External events that are outside the character’s control are only the most obvious source of reward and punishment. The decisions a character makes are another source. Are they reasonably intelligent given what the character knows? And are they well-intentioned? Or are they manifestly unwise or self-serving? How the character responds to events is yet another source of punishment and reward that is equally as important as the events themselves. I can put up with a lot of beatings and setbacks if the character displays what I consider to be positive attributes. Is the character tolerant, honest, and altruistic? Or is he judgmental, deceitful, and selfish? Does he admit to and accept responsibility for his mistakes? Does he show kindness? Moral courage? Suffering can be ennobling if borne with grace and fortitude. In short, there are a lot of ways to give me rewards as a reader while still having the hero up to his neck in hot water.
What should one do as a writer, given the range of reader tolerance? Staying true to your own natural inclinations is one option, on the theory that there will be readers out there who will respond favorably. Of course, there will also be readers who don’t. Doubtless there are readers who think Robin Hobb is spot-on, and others who think her writing is too tame. Trying to shape one’s writing to fit the intended audience is another possibility, especially for beginning writers, and especially if you find that you are way out one extreme or the other of the tolerance curve.
So what’s your personal tolerance for punishment when you read? Are your criteria for judging punishment similar to mine, or different? If you’re a writer, how do you balance reward and punishment in your work – or do you just not think about it?