Hurt/Comfort: a Confession and a Celebration
A word about Hurt/Comfort. I love it. I love it for all the wrong reasons. I don't only use it to make the stoic types more vulnerable; I adore taking the most open character (who is usually my favorite) and trashing him until he is a devastated, whimpering wreck. I can get into trashing the stoic one, too, but he's usually my second helping.
There doesn't have to be a point. There doesn't have to be any character growth. I don't particularly favor stories where the hurt character rescues himself, either - rescue-by-partner being one of my favorite kinks. Sure, I want them to be resourceful, to come up with clever escape plans - but then I want them to *fail.*
This is not to say I have anything *against* stories where the character grows - I love those, too. But I'm honest with myself that they are *not* the main reason I read HC. I spent many years trying to convince *myself* that they were - but lately I've been able to say, "I read trash, for no constructive reason, and I love it." (There's still a bit of artistic guilt there, but I tell myself it's all right as long as I don't fool myself that good trash is the same as good fic.)
I have some standards - I love pain, I love despair and bitterness and terror, but I'm not all that fond of degradation or humiliation. I say that the character doesn't have to grow, but if he's shoved into a situation from which he *should grow (given his character) and doesn't, that vexes me mightily. I kinda like when a strong, independent hero (for the open, vulnerable characters I favor are not wimps, after all) is reduced to tears and mentally begging for rescue to arrive - but if this moment occurs on page three, before anything terrible has actually happened, I am SO out of there. Likewise if every minor character on the show comes forward to say how much they really cared for the missing guy, despite apparent antagonism. Sap, sap, sap.
The C in HC is not to be confused with smarm, BTW - that's a different kink, a kind of uber-comfort with only enough hurt (sometimes none) to trigger it. I like smarm, but I also like the hurt in and of itself - what another fan once called "char torture." I like comfort to come after, but I'll read stories with insufficient amounts of comfort if the hurt is done well.
I can't really explain what the appeal is. Partly it's the emotional intensity. Partly it's the jeopardy. Partly it's the angst (viva angst!). But naming different parts of the appeal doesn't really explain what or why it is.
I suspect part of it is the desire to see blatant caretaking going on between the characters, but knowing that, if they are true to character, that won't happen unless something really extreme has just occurred. So rather than force them out of character to comfort each other for a minor incident, I will produce something extreme and make the comfort in character. I will also create moments when the characters have nothing TO do but caretake - there's no more reasonable action they can take, they have to wait or hide out for some reason - so no one will tear their hair out screaming at them to stop TALKING and DO something, damn it. The characters must behave like the intelligent adults they are or it's no good.
Of course, that doesn't keep me from kvetching if the author hasn't given me what I want.
Take my partner-rescue kink. Watching Wild Wild West, it always annoyed me that Artie or Jim would find a way to save themselves so often. I mean, I loved their resourcefulness, but I hated that the situation allowed them to bootstrap themselves out of Deathtrap #142 with no rescue scene. Far better if the character had been resourceful, had almost gotten themselves out, but the villain turned out to be cleverer than he/she seemed, and thwarted the attempt. I found myself (since I could hardly blame the heroes for being admirable, clever men) cursing the villains for their inconvenient stupidity. And the show's writers for their insensitivity to my needs. ;->
Partly, I know I do have a thing for the "get" plot, where everything bad conceivable happens to the main character and he must - somehow - survive it. Survive with his essential self, as well as his body, intact. This isn't exactly growth - it's more "getting back to zero" after being carried into the negative numbers. But to me, since life does sometimes seem to be an incomprehensible collection of disasters descending with no rhyme or reason, seeing someone cope with this is very inspiring. Disasters happen - disasters that, despite some New Age thinking, we have not brought down on ourselves. An earthquake destroys 20,000 Chileans - this was due to ALL their karma? I don't think so. Sometimes, we can be put into the hands of a serial killer by the smallest of human mistakes - or no mistake at all. I believe our karma does create situations - but the karma of others can impose itself over ours, stabbing into and penetrating our destiny and subsuming us in its freight train course. Once there, our own karma interacts with and changes theirs, in this life or in the next, with unpredictable results - but that often isn't comforting on the small scale. Karma is a chaos system.
"Get" stories (from the old Trek terms "get Kirk," "get Spock," etc.) are one way of dealing with the madness that is human existence. What does it feel like when random violence strikes? What happens when bad things happen that you've done NOTHING to deserve? How does your faith in God or the universe survive it? How does your faith in your best friend survive it? When hope is torn away and ripped to shivering shreds, what do you do? Extreme HC has the potential to answer some of the most basic questions of the human condition, and I respect it for that.
That's on my good days. On bad days, I'll read Tapu and think nothing of it. Her Sentinel stories are almost universally unsatisfying as a whole, but many of them contain some primo HC scenes. They are the junk food of the subgenre - not totally without nutritional value, but definitely weighted toward the empty HC calories. Her comfort is usually not enough for the extremes of hurt dealt (she's sort of the anti-smarmer), she sets up her situations badly, she never resolves the emotional issues created by the disasters in her stories (even in the sequel tales), and she frequently has the main characters inexplicably turn into idiots at key moments to keep the plot going. But mostly her HC scenes ring true. The emotional immediacy is authentic. And while she trashes Blair way more than Jim, she's one of the few authors who does include Jim-bashing and Jim-in-peril situations from time to time. (For a GOOD writer who does the same in Sentinel gen, try Anne Murdoch, Anne M., at http://trickster.org/hargrove/ - "Trial by Fire" and "Tyranny" come to mind.)
One of the best things about HC to me is the angst of the uninjured character (well, sometimes it's the "not being injured right at this particular moment" character). The fear of having the best thing in your life taken away is powerful and well-nigh universal. Most of us are attracted to fanfic because the relationships in them are so profound - threaten that with the most basic of human fears, and you have a combination guaranteed to strike deep into the very souls of your readers and make an impression. If you do it right.
It's a tricky thing, to do HC well, for the same reason it's tricky to do slash well - the greater the emotional extremes, the greater the chance the writer will have to stumble, and the more embarrassing the results if she does. We all know how pain feels (more of us than know how sex feels <g>), so we have a deep instinctive understanding of the reactions to it. That can be a help or a hindrance. A help, because we can "write what we know" more effectively than what we don't know, and because we know our readers will understand and identify with this. A hindrance, because we can let our own reactions override our sense of the character's reactions. Nothing ruins HC as fast as a grown man acting like a teenaged girl.
It is enjoyable to hurt a fictional character - people want to see it. Clever TV advertisers always play up the peril/hurt to a favorite main character in the previews to an episode, because they know it will draw the viewers. To the character involved, it's sort of the opposite of Gladiator - bleed, and they will love you for it. Why? Because the first step to love is identification. And nothing makes us identify - feel with - another person as immediately as empathy for their pain. It's instinctive. It's the root for the highest of human virtues - compassion - and the lowest of human evils - sadism. In HC, one can shade into another and it's okay because no real people are being hurt during the filming of this fanfic. When we hurt our favorite hero, we're hurting ourselves, and yet we're also coping with that hurt, comforting it, and saving ourselves in the nick of time from worse. We get to play all three sides of the equation - victim, tormentor, and rescuer. Some people go so far on the hurt that you feel repelled - the infamous ex-Sentinel writer "Sharon", for instance, who has removed her stories from the 'Net - but for my money it's better if we work out these things on paper than if we let them bleed (so to speak) over into our real lives. That doesn't create good fiction, but like journal writing, perhaps it serves another purpose. And like journals, some of them can be good for others to read afterwards.
Pain - like love, death, and sex - is one of the universals of human experience. We all feel it, we all have to find some way of coping with it. Whether it's physical, emotional, mental or spiritual (despair is a spiritual pain), we're all gonna run into it. HC lets us exercise (as Stephen King said, "exercise, not exorcise") our feelings of fascination and repellence regarding pain. Like a kid with a sore tooth, some of us just can't resist playing with it compulsively. It hurts, but it's a safe way to explore the hurt without actually having to feel the heights of true agony ourselves.