Reward and Punishment in Fiction Writing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStories 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?

12 Comments

  • Anne Louise Bannon

    November 10, 2015 at 1:58 am Reply

    Although you are spot on, I don’t usually think in terms of rewards and punishments when it comes to fiction. I hate bone-popping and other excessive violence. I also hate when a story drags out the inevitable in a relationship. I can’t tell you how many series I was ready to give up on because the lovers were constantly thwarted. It gets annoying and shows a lack of creativity. For me, the real fun starts when the marriage begins.

    • cwuenschell@gmail.com

      November 10, 2015 at 6:12 pm Reply

      You’ve got a great point, Anne, about romance. Too many writers drag it out, and I think it’s the happily-ever-after syndrome. The assumption that everything is over once they’re together/married. It’s the only “reward” the writer has to give us, so she delays it as long as possible. I agree that there’s a lot more out there after the knot is tied. And I know you’ve got some great stuff planned for Freddie and Kathy.

      The idea of “reward” vs “punishment” first came to me aster slogging through Harry Potter. A large part of what was wrong with books 5 and 6, I thought, was that there wasn’t enough reward in them. Not enough places where Harry did something brave, or clever, or noble, to set against all the meanness, large and small.

  • Gina Barlean

    November 10, 2015 at 2:46 am Reply

    I must be honest. I really don’t think about it. I have heard the saying, “Get your protagonist up a tree, then throw rocks at them.” I just write and see where it goes. When I’m bored with the writing, I know I’m lacking in conflict.

    Love the design of this website. Nicely done.

    • cwuenschell@gmail.com

      November 10, 2015 at 7:06 pm Reply

      Thanks for the compliment, Gina. I just changed my WordPress “theme” – and the background image is one I shot yesterday of the local mountains with storm clouds over them.

      It sounds like you’re one who follows your own instincts when writing. And here I thought you were an expert on throwing stones (wink). Seriously, Casting Stones was pretty intense. Thorns of Rosewood had a different kind of feel. You may not be consciously aiming for different audiences, but it seems like you must be instinctively adjusting what you do depending on the story you’re trying to tell.

  • Carrie Rubin

    November 10, 2015 at 3:05 am Reply

    I always feel a character needs a breather from the conflict every now and then, a lighter scene to allow him/her–and the reader–a chance to catch their breath, lick their wounds, and regain their strength for the next round of conflict. Too much conflict can be overwhelming. But finding the balance between too much and not enough? Ah, that is the challenge. Something good to have beta readers look for.

    • cwuenschell@gmail.com

      November 10, 2015 at 7:11 pm Reply

      And I thank you, Carrie, for the breathers. As a reader I like that. I wounder if the next blow actually might have more impact if the reader has been allowed to relax a little? Getting feedback from “typical” readers I’m sure helps with getting a good balance.

  • jmmcdowell

    November 10, 2015 at 5:36 pm Reply

    My tolerance level for conflict and punishment is probably lower than for most readers. It doesn’t take long before I start thinking there’s no way someone would continue in real life the way a character is forced to do in a story. Real people would likely cut their losses and run, collapse in exhaustion, or “move on already.” So if an author hasn’t made me able to suspend disbelief enough, I may not finish the book I’ve started, let alone read another.

    As you say, though, every reader has a different tolerance level for what he or she wants or can realistically accept in a story. At some point, the readership will tell if an author is getting it right for an audience of a given size. Then the writer may want to consider if that audience is enough or if they should do something different to attract a larger one.

    • cwuenschell@gmail.com

      November 10, 2015 at 7:27 pm Reply

      Hi JM. I sounds like you and I may be about the same speed, as readers, on this. Although, for me it goes beyond whether it’s believable that the character could take it. Bad stuff just hurts to read, and I don’t like hurting too much. If the character at least is admirable, I can deal with a lot more external stuff being thrown at him. And I think the worst for me is betrayal by someone the author has led me to trust. This is because finding a true friend, someone you can trust in life, is possibly life’s greatest reward. I hate having that rug pulled out from under me, even in the vicarious world of fiction. But, yes, people differ and what you say about a writer considering whether to adjust to the audience is very true.

  • Audrey Kalman

    November 12, 2015 at 3:49 pm Reply

    What an interesting way to look at books! One of my publisher’s main objections to the first draft of my novel was that it was “too dark.” Thinking about that response in light of what you’ve said makes me think that perhaps she and I have different punishment/reward tolerances. Sometimes, I think, the ratio can be made to feel different by how the story is told. At least, I’m hoping that will be the case with my rewrite 🙂

    • cwuenschell@gmail.com

      November 12, 2015 at 6:34 pm Reply

      I’m sure that how you tell the story can make a difference. It could be just in what gets emphasized, but also in finding subtle ways to insert reward. For me, rewards can balance punishment and rewards can come in many different forms. If the protagonist has just one person who loves them, even if that person is dead and is only being remembered as a source of strength and positive values – it can make all the difference for me. If the point of your story is to be dark, though, it just has to be dark. If it’s about someone being self-destructive, then they have to be self-destructive. I just choose not to read stories like that because they hurt too much.

      Your publisher may think they know the audience, as well as just having a different tolerance, but who knows?

  • Kathy Gottberg

    January 27, 2016 at 12:23 am Reply

    Hi Carol! I had never considered a the reward or punishment angle of writing but it makes so much sense. I tend to root for characters that face their demons and persevere but I do run out of connection when the trials and tribulations just don’t stop. A balance is very important. What it likely comes down to is how I respond to life. I can be a really good friend and cheerleader to people when they face problems proactively. But if they keep hitting the same wall without make progress I get very impatient. Chances are I’m the same with the characters I write and the characters I read. ~Kathy

    • cwuenschell@gmail.com

      January 27, 2016 at 7:15 pm Reply

      Welcome, Kathy. It’s great to see you here. Your smartliving365 blog is such a wonderful source of good suggestions and positive energy.

      Being able to control that balance of positive and negative events, and characters’ responses to them, is for me one of the greatest attractions of writing fiction, and it’s precisely because I can’t control it as much as I’d like in the real world. Getting impatient with people who aren’t making progress? Yeah, I’ve been there. One thing I’ve learned, though, from having been both a student and a teacher (of sorts), is that you can’t make people learn. The best you can do is facilitate the process that has to occur inside their heads. And as tempting as it is to blame the person you’re trying to help for not taking your suggestion, or not getting that crucial insight, I’ve also found that the older I get, the harder it is to judge people. That comes partly from what I’ve seen inside my own head, and partly from knowing that there are people I care about too much to ever be able to just write them off, no matter how infuriatingly blind and lost they may be. This does make it kind of hard to create simple, hate-able villains for my fiction – something I struggle with because I know that genre-fiction readers like and expect such characters.

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