Claire King


Misery Loves Company

Posted on: February 17th, 2011 by Claire - 15 Comments

Meet Mr X.

He could easily be described as too content. He has a kind of Panglossian optimism that drives most people around him crazy. In a nutshell, he’s happy.

It’s challenging throwing decent obstacles at this guy, because he takes them in his stride, looks on the bright side and carries on as usual. Of course I plan to crack him. In the next 80,000 words I’m going to make him miserable and then pull him out of the other side. Why would I do this to him? Well, because it’s fiction, and that’s what we do to our characters. No-one likes to read about people who start happy, end happy and are happy during the middle parts too. Right?

Today I read a blog post along these lines, which asks the question ‘Are happy characters boring to read?’ Why do we feel the need to drag them through conflict situations in the name of good fiction?

1. Why do stories need conflict/unhappiness?

Because misery loves company. Our lives are not, in general, blissfully happy. Hearing stories about how others overcome problems helps us understand we are not alone, perhaps learn ways of managing difficult situations. Not only do we take vicarious pleasure in others’ suffering but it is good to hear that others face conflict and prevail. There is hope for us too. The troughs of unhappiness emphasise the peaks of success.

From a very early age, in the stories we tell to children, we introduce danger, evil and conflict and we show how it can be beaten, how even the most unlikely hero can triumph against all odds.

2. What kind of conflict?

While I was thinking about conflict I pulled out Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. If you’re not familiar with this theory you can read a summary here. My character, Mr X, has met his physiological and safety needs and he’s not particularly interested in moving higher up the pyramid. He’s content at a fairly basic level. My challenge, in introducing conflict, is either to take away some of his safety/physiological satisfaction or to make him aspire to the other elements on the pyramid. Whilst I was plotting this out, I came up with a hypothesis. It’s a great generalisation, but I’d love to know what you think:

When you read a book where the conflict in concentrated in those areas (family, sex, love, self esteem, confidence) – who tends to have written those stories? Would it be too much of a generalisation to say women writers have a strong focus in these areas?

Now, look at the top tier of the pyramid – the self-actualization – and the bottom two. Would it be fair to say that male writers tend to focus conflict in these areas?

And if we can (if we can) make those generalisations, can we follow it through to conclude that an audience of female readers enjoy books whose conflict/conflict resolution is in the ‘female’ areas? And male readers in the extremes of the pyramid? I know this is not a very politically correct hypothesis, but there it is on the table.

What do you think?

15 Responses

  1. Ruth says:

    My brother (who is big and hairy and scary and used to be a biker) says that books should always have romance threads, because it’s part of life and to leave it out would be unrealistic. Mind you, he is a big old softie at heart… 😀

    Personally, I like to read and write stuff with an element of adventure in it – preferably quite a LARGE element! But perhaps my brother and I are atypical. 🙂

    • claire says:

      I think as Vanessa says below, our individual preoccupations play a very large role, regardless of our sex.
      Until recently I’ve not been very conscious of any division of the sexes as writers, but it seems to be a current topic of discussion and I have a sneaky feeling I will be judged in the future as a ‘woman writer’ rather than necessarily just a writer…

  2. Hi Claire

    always an interesting conundrum, isn;t it. Maybe it is also to do with one’s own values and needs and preoccupations, as reader and writer, as opposed to one’s sex?

    There’s a lot of nattering going on about women not being given the right amount of space in review columns. And editors such as W Skidelsky commenting that its because women don’t write the sort of stuff these columns like to feature…aaaagh!

    To add fuel, here’s a review quote I found: for ‘Jubilate’, a novel by Michael Arditti.

    “Anyone who is afraid that the English novel is sliding into a backwater of domestic anecdote should find their anxieties assuaged by the writing of Michael Arditti’ – The Times.

    But I will admit it happily – this reader avoids novels that do no more than explore domestic situations, love stories, whatever. They fulfil no needs in me as a reader.

    • claire says:

      At a recent event, several of us were discussing the issue around book reviewers and book reviews being skewed to the male side of things. Jessica Mann ( made a comment that she feels editors often don’t send her books written by women because they ‘believe she wouldn’t be interested in reviewing them.’

  3. O.K….

    First, the pyramid:

    Love/Belonging & Esteem are the areas of life that women (as the mothers of society {even if they don’t have babies}) must be “experts” in. The mother is the first educator as well as the most intimate love provider and a critical education for healthy children is modeling Esteem…

    The men wallow in the Physiological because of our dreaded testosterone…

    We end up championing Self-actualization only due to the gender-inequality of society…

    As far as conflict in general, I often find myself showing the character’s struggle with the “Jungian” Unconscious–not necessarily in any obvious way. Plus, the Unconscious has a way of reaching beyond the conscious mind and “magically” producing events in the outside world that the poor, egoistic consciousness must deal with…

  4. Peter Labrow says:

    I think that’s really, really interesting. I don’t have an answer but it’m something I’m going to apply some brainpower to. In considering your essentially happy character who’s reached most of his life’s goals, I’d like to relate a tale: I had a lot of problems sleeping around the time I hit 40. Serious stuff, literally I was getting a few hours every few days. This of course led to stress and other issues. It took a while to resolve; I saw a counsellor and she said it was fairly common for men – most men are goal-orientated and set 40 as the time when they want to have achieved various things, without planning further. Once 40 arrives, goals are achieved etc the person becomes rudderless and debates his own self-worth, leading to all kinds of issues – even total breakdowns. At the time, I had a great job (running my own company), great family, no debt etc, no real issues – but nonetheless I almost unravelled. Urm, I didn’t intend to end up at the confessional, but I hope you take my point. In my writing, I think perfect happy characters are dull, but also highly unrealistic – nearly everyone has a degree of duality about them, indeed, they have have what can see to be entirely contradictory traits. I did blog about this a while back: but only in a superficial way.

    • claire says:

      I agree that perfectly happy characters are unrealistic, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to draw this character, to see how far I could stretch him before he cracks…
      If you’ve ever read Candide, it’s interesting following him through all manner of disaster, including his love having her buttocks cut off, and all the while wrestling with his received wisdom that this is the best of all possible worlds.
      Have you ever written a fictional character who went through the ‘unravelling at 40’ experience?

      • Peter Labrow says:

        I’ve not read Candide, but I’ll seek it out. Have a written a character who unravels at 40? I’m currently doing so! I’m drawing on that experience, though in fiction I think that falling apart because you have everything is a bit dull, so there is something much, much darker behind it. One of my best friends Emma wanted me to write romantic fiction – kind of Nick Hornby with a darker edge; she felt that was very ‘me’ – but there’s not enough room for me to explore extremes within that kind of narrative. My mind naturally gravitates to topics which are darker. Interestingly, when I was researching for The Well, I spoke at length with a police officer about investigation procedures for missing children. It was great stuff, but the ah-ha moment was when he said that in 99% of cases the parents have to be pulled apart at some point, however strong their relationship had been before. His experience was that the parents want to blame someone, if there’s no one to blame they often turn on each other. The parents of my missing girl had, until that point, leaned on each other for support – I replotted every single scene they were in after that, to gradually eat at their relationship. It’s something that several readers have commented on positively – yet I wouldn’t (I don’t think) have come up with such unpredictable behaviour on my own.

  5. Marcus Speh says:

    interesting! in fact, often: the less politically correct, the more relevant; there’s a systemic dimension to writing for sure and i like your arguments though i don’t think it’s as simple:

    “Now, look at the top tier of the pyramid – the self-actualization – and the bottom two. Would it be fair to say that male writers tend to focus conflict in these areas?”

    don’t know about fair. my own writing is focused on the top under the heading “meaning” and “sense making” (of the world) – the headiest of maslov’s dimensions if you will. but when i write story, i most often use the love/belonging dimension to anchor the plot and the characters.

    in a way, the writing itself as a process of creation, follows the levels of the pyramid from the bottom. great food for thought, claire, thank you!

    • claire says:

      Thanks Marcus, I do like your idea of having themes in one area but anchoring the plot with another. I think Maslow’s hierarchy as a theory quickly becomes inadequate when tested with the complications of our fiction, but it definitely got me thinking!

  6. Hi Claire,
    I think you’re right. It’s certainly the area my heroine inhabits in my work-in-progress, and what I enjoy reading ‘on the whole’. When I turn to books where conflict is centred in the extremes of the pyramid, ‘on the whole’ they’re written by men. Where they’re written by women, if the centre of conflict is safety (of society, herself and her family) there’s always an underlying theme of love, belonging and esteem. Virginia Woolf even went so far as to suggest there is a ‘feminine sentence’ or style of writing. I wonder, if this tendency is there, whether it’s a gender thing or a hangover from the ‘lonely voice’ of women writers trapped in the social codes of patriarchy and ‘adventure’ versus ‘domesticity’?
    A very interesting and thought provoking blog. Thanks.

    • claire says:

      Hi Deborah, thanks for your comment!
      As for Virginia Woolf’s suggestion, if you post a piece of writing into this page:
      it will analyse the sentence structure and the use of certain words and will deduce (apparently with 80-90% accuracy) if it was written by a man or a woman (regardless of the theme).

      • Thanks for this Claire. I tried the ‘gender genie’ with two 600 word passages from my work in progress; one written from the female point of view and the other from the male. The ‘gender genie’ got it right both times. Interestingly though,(and satisfyingly!) it gave a 98 point difference between male and female in the female passage, and only a ten point difference in the male passage!

  7. claire says:

    Also, I’d be very interested to know if anyone here has read ‘Freedom’ and how this fits the theory. I haven’t read it…

  8. Rufus Evison says:

    I am generally a happy character. I enjoy books about happy characters hitting conflicts and how they take them in theit stride and get over the difficult bunmps without losing their happiness. Maybe I am atypical?

    Even in Pride and prjudice the characters were happy most of the time though the situations they were beset with were (from their social conmtext) horrific and they had to struggle until Money Ex Machina to solve things for them.

    On your geneder divide the first aythor to come to mind was Elizabeth Moon who writes SF adventure stories firmly set in the bottom section. Next was Wosisname who wrote “How to be good” whose stories seem to be set in the middle. sorry i cannot remember his name, I’ll just go and search amazon… it is Nick Hornby though my search for his name turned up Tony Parsons who I think may play around there too? Not sure if any of these are helpful, they are just what came to mind? The exception tests the rule so they may help?

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