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Posted on Sep 18, 2013 in Blog, International, Languages, Lego, Music, Writing

We Watch Train Wrecks

We Watch Train Wrecks

In my Portuguese class last spring, we were required to read and report on one article a week from an online Brazilian news site. Unfortunately, the week of our first assignment was that of the deadly nightclub fire in Rio Grande do Sul, so all the news that class members brought in was bad news. The Brazilian professor didn’t extend the assignment beyond the first two weeks, which I believe had to do with the overwhelming tragedy of the situation in her native country.

This semester she tried again, and the due date happened to be two days after the country’s most prominent bass player committed suicide. Well, yes, there was other news as well — a major diplomatic dispute because the U.S. government had been caught spying with impunity on the Brazilian government, and the new iPhone being made available throughout the world but not in Brazil. However, as a writer, I found compelling the struggles of the musician Champignon, who started his career as a 12-year-old rock prodigy in 1992, who had a love-hate relationship with his superstar mentor, the band’s lead singer who died of a drug overdose last march, and who became despondent because of overwhelmingly negative reviews when he tried to carry on the band after the singer’s death.

Still, I felt bad bringing in such a sad story, one that many people would call a “train wreck.” As writers, though, we traffic in train wrecks. Something bad has to happen to our characters — even better if that something is a result of our characters’ own frailties rather than a chance occurrence. In my MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts I heard the expression, “chase your character up a tree and then throw rocks at him,” and the corollary that the rock-throwing couldn’t be random. Our protagonists had to end up in dire circumstances that were believable and logical outcomes of his or her actions, and sufficiently dire  that the reader could not be sure of the outcome. I remember Maggie Steifvater saying at a conference that she “tortures” her characters. My professors at VCFA would nod in approval.


These Bricksters get together to watch train wrecks. Jerry Bijoux (rear, with the red hat) will drop his banana peel on the tracks to help things along.

Most commonly, fictional “train wrecks” — both train-wreck circumstances and train-wreck characters — are deadly serious, whether they’re contemporary fiction, historical fiction, or speculative fiction. Some authors use them for humorous effect, most notably Lemony Snicket in his Series of Unfortunate Events. The popular YA dystopian genre is probably the most bad-news genre of all, but as young readers mature, we writers ramp up the stakes, the conflicts, and the physical and emotional danger. This is what readers want, we hear, and we tell ourselves. But let’s face it. This is what we like to write. If it wasn’t, we’d be writing…well, I don’t know what other people would be writing, but I’d be writing computer code (and it wouldn’t be for Grand Theft Auto V).

Yesterday I read an article in the New York Times titled “‘Everyday Sadists’ Among Us.” The article talked about people “who enjoy inflicting at least moderate pain on others, directly or vicariously” and included not only obvious bullies but also those who play violent video games and revel in schadenfreude or others’ suffering in general. In other words, people who watch train wrecks, particularly if they play a role in bringing about the train wreck.

Could this be…me? The article didn’t mention fiction writers — or readers for that matter — but I’m not sure we get a pass because we torment our characters by writing words and sentences rather than by pressing buttons on a controller. Or that we enjoy reading about other people’s tragic lives as opposed to applauding fights and body checks at hockey games.

What do you think?


  1. Great post, Lyn! I’d say there is a difference between a real enjoyment for the pain of others and what writers do to bring conflict to their stories. We don’t “enjoy” tormenting our characters and watching them suffer. After all, we suffer along with them as we catalogue their journeys. Stories provide a way to empathize with the pain of others and to give voice to those lacking a voice.

    • Thank you for your comment, Linda! Even though we may empathize with our characters and suffer along with them, we cannot protect our characters. I could always tell in workshops and also in my critique groups when someone was protecting characters. (You were not among them and I loved your piece for it.) Protecting characters against their circumstances and the consequences of their actions tends to rob a story of a lot of its power.

  2. Great thoughts here! What immediately comes to mind is a quote from my favorite movie The Princess Bride where our protagonist’s true love (in disguise) says, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” I think life is full of train wrecks, big and small. We’re fascinated by the big ones and devastated our own. Fiction is just a reflection of that. Reading about how other people handle their train wrecks equips us, I think, to understand and handle our own train-wrecky lives, particularly for teen readers. I mean, in retrospect I have actually said that my high school experience was just a 4-year train wreck and I know I’m not alone. We write train wrecks because we love our characters and want them to survive.

    • Thank you, Shelby! If my high school experience wasn’t a train wreck, it was because I was the rat hiding out underneath the tracks. Being an outsider did help me to develop my ability to observe and to reflect on what I saw. The toughest part for me now is not the impulse to protect my characters but to avoid creating protagonists who are passive observers the way I was (and the way those LEGO characters are except for the one who’s going to drop the banana peel onto the tracks).

  3. Great and challenging question, Lyn. It made me think of children’s writers (writing for all age levels) who don’t wreck their characters before picking them up off the ground again, and therefore are being told that their characters are “too perfect” (despite obvious flaws), etc… You also have the picture book writers being told that the only problem with his story is that “there’s no conflict,” meaning that the main character is not in danger and in a situation where s/he has to solve a major crisis.

    I’m partial to diversity also when it comes to storylines. Indeed, I hope that children of all ages have enough to, if they want, choose to not just read about stressful situations. Sometimes it’s as fun to read something that is on the quiet side, in my opinion. 🙂

    • Thank you for the comment, Nathalie! It’s gotten to the point where “quiet book” is the kiss-of-death label these days. I don’t generally write quiet books, but I read one recently and really appreciated the fact that the author depicted all of the people in the small town as basically good people, and no one faced situations that crushed their spirits. (Yes, folks should check out my review of Shirley Reva Vernick’s Remember Dippy on The Pirate Tree.) I don’t think it’s coincidence that quieter books, like Remember Dippy, tend to be published by smaller presses, and it’s one more reason that we should be supporting smaller publishers and buying their books.

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