My dad’s favorite saying was “Time wounds all heels.” But he wasn’t a fiction writer. Fiction writers know that the quip reflects wishful thinking more than reality. Worse, it disregards fiction’s essence: How do the good guys go from hurt to healing, from dragged down by the past to buoyed up by what it can teach? How do characters get from haunted to heroic?
Whether romance or western, literary or mystery, the heart of every novel is the journey from everything that crisis entails to everything that a cathartic climax entails. The protagonist suffers and, through that pain, achieves insight and some relief. So do the readers.
This healing process very closely resembles recovery from a physical wound.
~ The gash.
It might be a cut, bite, or burn. The pain, from bloodshed or betrayal, is fierce and immediate—like someone setting you on fire. You know from the start that this scar will be permanent. You might not be in danger of bleeding to death. You are in danger of wanting to.
~ The rage.
The second act is often fury. How could I, or him, or her, or something be so stupid and inappropriate, and directly in my way, or unwilling to provide what I want/need/deserve? In life, many of us love to blame. But isn’t fiction bigger than that? When the protagonist finally relinquishes rage for serenity, that’s part of the ending’s pleasure.
~ The hurt.
It happened so long ago. How can it still feel as raw as if it the stab is three hours old? The bruise throbbing, the scar forming, the sore abating—all can feel worse than that first thrust. The brevity of the injury is nothing contrasted with the time needed to let go.
~ The healing.
It’s your job to offer a plot that forces your protagonist to heal emotional wounds, so readers can go along for that ride. Objectivity promotes healing: Readers get to see who really did what, and why. Readers also watch characters bid blame farewell. You didn’t mean to stick your arm over the flame anymore than the flame intended to attack you. Forgiveness is where healing happens.
Novels provide diverse things: excitement, glorious language, fantasy fulfillment, psychological insight, and—catharsis. The story’s climax is the cathartic moment when whatever past event or syndrome daunted or wounded or stymied becomes part of the past. Where it belongs. When fiction works as it’s supposed to, readers heal right along with the characters.
Perhaps fiction’s greatest gift is that we watch characters struggle, fail, and experience the gamut of emotions while we sit safe on a lawn chair or couch. All we have to do is turn pages. We risk nothing. Yet we stand to gain everything. Because of catharsis.
Tip: The lessons characters learn from pain are the lessons readers hope to learn effortlessly.