I recently read a couple of blog posts that were discussing whether readers prefer stories in which the main characters suffer or stories in which everything turns out well for the characters. Nixy Valentine contends readers want to go on a "ride" with the characters, through a range of emotions, good and bad. The Disorganised Author asks if writing (and by extension, reading) isn't an escape from the negative aspects of life. It's an interesting question, and I would submit that readers use the emotional ride of fictional characters to escape, at least temporarily, from the very real problems in their own lives.
When I was a journalism student, I learned that one of the key news values that make for a good news story is conflict. That conflict comes in various forms - man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. society - you probably know them as well as I do. You also know that conflict in life is inevitable. If a story is going to ring true, it must have conflict as well. So as much as a writer may hate putting his/her characters through the suffering, suffer they must. But...how much?
In Dancing in the Checkered Shade, I knew the main characters were going to have to suffer through heartbreak and rejection at one point in the plot. Their relationship had always been tenuous anyway, since they married on an impulse instead of making a reasoned decision. At this point near the end of the story, Maggie is tired of trying. When John David tells her he's going to leave her for a while so he can keep on with a job he's committed to, she tells him to not bother coming back.
In the original version, I wrote Maggie as being very matter-of-fact and cold during the whole scene. She gives "reasons" why he should leave, and she announces she's setting him free. John David doesn't really resist; when he tries to say something to her, she closes her eyes. At that point, he gives up and says goodbye to her, going off to join his boss (who has been calling through the door).
That scene bothered me for a long time. It didn't seem to have the "punch" it needed at this point in the book (near the end), and to be honest, it felt very flat and emotionally starved. So when I did my next edit, I got mean. I felt bad about it, because what I had planned was going to require Maggie, the narrator and the character I hope readers will identify with, to be a real jerk. In the rewrite, she starts out being "reasonable," but then she gets angry at John David. She slings unfair accusations at him and denies that they've ever felt anything for each other. Her anger builds up until she resorts to physical violence, slapping him (which ties back to an earlier scene quite neatly, ha ha). And when he makes a final attempt to reason with her, she's the one who cuts it off with goodbye.
It works much better, I think. Since Maggie made a jerk of herself, she has better opportunities later to regret and repent, which makes for a more satisfying resolution at the end of the book. And I think it's more realistic, too. Who among us hasn't done something we sorely regret, something which seems beyond our power to repair? So, while it might have been a risk to make the main character go evil (temporarily!), I'm hoping readers will still identify with her every step of the way.
For the good of the story, the characters have to suffer. I also believe that the greater their suffering, the deeper the potential emotional impact of the story will be. However, I'm no sadist! I also believe the best stories are those in which the characters find some way to deal with that suffering and ultimately come to peace in some form. I completely agree with Elizabeth George Speare, who said,
"I do not believe a historical novel should gloss over the pains and the ugliness. But I do believe that the hero...should on the last page...still be standing, with the strength to go to whatever the future may hold."