Punish Your Characters, Not The Audience

I like to run my characters — the protagonists especially — through hell and back. I shove their squealing asses into whatever meat grinder, trash compactor or whirring fan-blade I can find. I punch them. Kick them. Knock out their teeth. Cut off their toes. They get loved, and then left. They suffer betrayal. They undergo unpleasant transformations. They’re forced down dark paths.

My love for this particular brand of sadism runs to the characters I watch in other fictions, as well — in fact, I think my delight in a protagonist’s pain first came to life (or at least danced into the light of revelation) with Die Hard. I mean, c’mon. John McClane is put through his paces. By the end he looks like a bloody ragdoll, limp and cackling. It’s awesome.

I don’t know what it is, exactly, about a character’s weakness, about their fictional pain. It might be that we relate to it. It might be the way that we know they’re human, because vulnerability is a perfectly human condition and problem. Could be that this is how we know the storyteller is serious; like any gunman or terrorist, the storyteller isn’t afraid to make good on those threats, goddamnit.

Plus: pain for a protag means we know that the stakes on the table are serious, indeed.

But for a while now I’ve been trying to figure out, where’s the line? I know a line exists. I know you can cross it. I know that the misery a storyteller bestows upon a characters can suddenly go too far, and once it’s gone an inch too far it’s a mile, and once it’s at a mile it’s probably a million. A betrayal is a betrayal, and if you break trust with the audience, it’s a very hard thing to get back.

And that’s the best I can come up with, then: you should punish the characters, but the moment that such punishment bleeds over (bleeds! get it? bleeds? shut it) to the audience, you’re double-fucked. So, punishing John McClane in Die Hard is good because it shows us all those things I mentioned above: he’s real, he’s human, the stakes are on the table, the storyteller is serious, blah blah blah.

But, if, say, we pushed him too far — say, killing Bonnie Bedelia’s Holly Generro character — then his pain suddenly becomes the audience’s pain. His anguish is suddenly arbitrary, without purpose.

That’s not to say the death of another character is automatically that. No, you have to gauge it by the story you’re telling, by all the parts that go into that tale.

I think.

It’s bound somehow to the mood of the piece, to the tenor of the story. The mood — and maybe the themes — are a gauge to tell you how much is too much. In something like Serenity, the death of Wash doesn’t seem earned — yes, it’s pain for him and pain for the other characters, but it’s also pain for us. We’re left pondering his death the same way we’re left to ponder the sudden death of a friend. It’s not pleasant, and it seems unmoored to the story because it (I think) betrays the mood and the theme a little bit.

I’m still getting my hands around this.

Throw your thoughts at me. When is it too much? What are some good examples of the right kind of protagonist pain? And, of course, the sinister, mustachio-twirling side: the bad examples?