Okay, okay. The theory that I have, which is mine, (that's a Python reference, folks), is that fictional characters suffer for similar reasons to those that render puppies "cute" in our eyes.
Is that totally unclear? Good.
I'll take it from the top.
A couple of days ago John Scalzi posted a entry called "The Science Behind the Cute." He, in turn, linked to a New York Times article about why humans find panda cubs, penguins, puppies and kitties, babies, etc., well, cute. The gist of it is this:
Scientists who study the evolution of visual signaling have identified a wide and still expanding assortment of features and behaviors that make something look cute: bright forward-facing eyes set low on a big round face, a pair of big round ears, floppy limbs and a side-to-side, teeter-totter gait, among many others.Cute cues are those that indicate extreme youth, vulnerability, harmlessness and need, scientists say, and attending to them closely makes good Darwinian sense. ... The human cuteness detector is set at such a low bar, researchers said, that it sweeps in and deems cute practically anything remotely resembling a human baby or a part thereof.
Now, I personally don't like art that depicts children (or puppies and kitties) with unnaturally large eyes, such as the work of the late Ted DeGrazia, for example. But I remember buying a 99 cent print of a big-eyed puppy at the P&C when I was eight years old, and there's a lot more where that came from. Yes, people respond to creatures that are all fuzzy and big-eyed and helpless-looking.
(As an aside here, for the sake of science: which of the Tuffy photos in this entry do you prefer, the one of just her head, or the one that makes her head look too big for her body? The latter is sort of in the style known in anime as "super-deformed." In theory, that should be the cuter picture. But I personally don't like it much. On the other hand, the other picture shows off her eyes and her fuzzyness better, and...aw, heck. Excuse me for a moment while I go give Tuffy a dog biscuit.)
What has all this to do with fictional characters and why they suffer? Well, not much. But it got me thinking. If we're programmed to respond favorably to cuteness, to want to help the helpless, feed the baby, pet the doggie, let the cat sit in our lap, is there a similar mechanism at work in the way we respond to characters in tv and movies and books? Do we like Bugs and Daffy, Mickey and Donald partly because they're cute? More to the point, do we care about Sam Beckett and Captain Kirk, John Crichton and Aeryn Sun, and all those Lost and Desperate Housewives characters I have no clue about, not so much because they're cute as because they're always in terrible trouble?
Of course we do.
Way back in the early days of Quantum Leap fandom, around 1990, there was a letterzine called The Imaging Chamber, edited by Kitty Woldow. She used to write about a fan fiction attribute she called "smarm." She wasn't talking about sleaze or slash, although some examples might be either of these. She was talking about the "hurt/comfort" syndrome used by fanfic writers, especially female writers. They would put their male protagonist (e.g. Sam Beckett) in a position of helplessness and suffering - break his leg, kill his friend, give him cancer, make him leap into a baby, strand him on a mountain with no clothes and a vicious puma nearby. Whatever. The idea, as I understand it, was to induce motherly and/or sexual interest in the reader, to want to comfort our poor suffering hero.
Really though, most fiction does this, albeit not always to such an extreme degree, or necessarily with sexual underpinnings. Nobody (well, almost nobody) is going to watch two hours of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader relaxing chastely by the pool after a pleasant meal together. This is especially true if those two hours are your introduction to those two characters. If they're not in conflict, with each other or someone else; if they're not in trouble and trying to get out, you're not going to stick around for two hours to see whether Darth gets deeper tan lines than Luke does. But if Luke is yearning to get the heck off the farm, and has a mystery to solve involving Ben Kenobi and the new droids, and then his aunt and uncle get blowed up real good, you're going to care what happens to him. You feel sorry for him, and identify with him, and wonder how it will all work out. (Unless, of course, you've seen it a million times before. Then you wonder if you remember that one piece of dialogue right, and whether there's a boom mike showing in Scene 23. Or something. Even then, you still care about the character.)
Similarly, it has been pointed out to me by at least one of my faithful beta readers that I really make my characters suffer, especially in Mages of Mâvarin. This is very true, and I've always been aware that was the case. I have one character in particular who starts out a little restless, finds out a bunch of good stuff about himself and starts to learn and grow - and then he's kidnapped, stranded, blooded, half-starved, literally out of his head - and that's just in Volumes One and Two. I'm always joking and worrying that my books might turn into My Dinner With Rani, all conversation and no conflict. But really I know better. My books are about good, well-meaning, flawed people who get in terrible trouble, and are changed by their experiences.
What is the link between caring about characters in trouble and loving the cute? It is simply this. If we're programmed to respond favorably toward the young and weak and helpless - in other words, the cute - then we're more likely to look after our children (and our puppies and kitties). Similarly, if we are programmed to care that someone is in trouble or suffering, then we are more likely to try to help that person, which is good for society (and the right thing to do). In the case of a fictional character, our emotions are played upon in an artificial environment that heightens both the experience and the rewards. We know that Luke Skywalker isn't going to hit us up for beer money, slap us around, raise our taxes, or spill grape juice on the living room rug. He's not going to do any of those annoying things that real people do, or require any time-intensive, no-easy-answers problem solving on our part. No, all we have to do to see Luke through his ordeal is watch the rest of the movie. In the end, he'll be rewarded, and so, vicariously, will we.
I was discussing all this with John (Blocher, not Scalzi) last night, and he had a very different take on all this. For him, and I suspect for many readers of science fiction and mysteries, fiction is often more an intellectual pastime than an emotional one. John isn't worried what will happen to Holmes and Watson, or even to John Crichton. He's interested to see how the problem will be solved, how the puzzle fits together. This also works from an evolutionary / societal standpoint. People who see the world (at least in part) in terms of intellectual problems to be solved are more likely to invent and experiment, which also benefits society.
So the ideal fiction, in theory, should be about a cute character, with whom we can identify, in terrible trouble, suffering in a way that has both an emotional component and an intellectual one. We read or watch to see how the problem is solved, and also to know that our surrogate, the cute protagonist, is going to be okay.
Works for me!