The Pain Makes it Real

2014 author pic compressed~ By Jim Cangany

There’s a line in John Green’s beloved The Fault in Our Stars that has rooted itself in my head and won’t go away. “That’s the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.”

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about that line and how it applies to romance writers. I think we’d agree that in romance, the hero, or heroine, or both, need to survive pain in some sort before they get to enjoy their happily-ever-after. The pain may be physical, if the paramedic heroine is injured while trying to save a child’s life, for example. It could emotional too, if the hero has lost the ability to trust after finding out his former spouse was cheating on him. The point is the pain has to be dealt with and overcome, or we’d be left with pretty boring stories.

So, as authors, where do we find that pain? Even more important, how do we transfer that pain to the page once we’ve found it? In my opinion, we don’t have to look far. A glance in the mirror will suffice. After all, who among us has not battled, and hopefully defeated, pain at one time or another? It could be anything from a stubbed toe to an extended stay in the hospital. He or she who has not felt pain has not truly lived.

Contemporary romance authors write stories about “real” people. While they may be more muscle-bound or have better hair than the majority of us in the flesh-and-blood world, those characters still struggle with the everyday struggles we face–sick children, aging parents, a friend’s unexpected death.

Our job as writers is to get the reader to care about our characters. What better way is there to create that connection than to draw on our own experiences? Sure we’re paid to make stuff up. But romance readers are smart, and can spot a lack of genuineness a mile away. (Just to be safe, I consulted the dictionary and genuineness is a real word. Trust me.)

When I wrote Fallen Star, the toughest scene for me to write was when E.J.’s mother passed away.  Why was it so hard? It was difficult because to write the way it needed to be written, I went back to the time when my mom died. While my mom’s passing was much different from E.J.’s, the helplessness, the anguish, the pain was the same. I needed to channel all of those emotions into that scene to make sure it was a genuine as possible.

I was in tears when I finished writing that scene. But you know what? Readers have told me that sequence left them in tears, as well. That, my friends, is what it’s all about. When you’ve dug so deep into your own mine of troubles that the reader actually feels it too, then you’ve dug deep enough.

Given that nobody likes to revisit bad times, so one may ask why do it. I believe we should do it because as storytellers we are in the unique position to tell the truth. We are the ones who strip away the veneer to reveal what lies beneath. And when we have done so, and made our readers seethe in anger, or shed a tear in grief, we have made the payoff–the hero and heroine’s happily-ever-after–that much more worthy of celebration.

My editor has told me that I have a knack for making her cry. It’s an unusual compliment, but one of which I am quite proud. I’m proud of it because that means I’ve done my job well. I’ve searched within myself, brought forth some of that pain we all carry, and transferred it to the page in a way that someone else feels it.

The ability to have our words bring forth a specific emotional response from somebody we’ve never met is pretty darn cool. It may not be easy. It may not be fun. But it is so worth the heartache, because at the end of the story, when our hero and heroine have fought the good fight, that happily-ever-after they finally achieved is sweeter than a June strawberry.

So my challenge to my fellow authors is this–dig deep. And when in doubt, dig a little deeper. By doing so, I guarantee you’ll hit that vein of elusive emotional gold that can be so hard to find. And your readers will thank you for it. In closing, I’d like to leave you with an old Irish prayer that captures the essence of this topic quite elegantly, I think.

May God give you…
For every storm, a rainbow,
For every tear, a smile,
For every care, a promise,
And a blessing in each trial.
For every problem life sends,
A faithful friend to share,
For every sigh, a sweet song,
And an answer for each prayer.

The youngest of eight children, Jim grew up in a household full of books, people and traditions.  These days, Jim writes romance on the sweet end. If you ask him what is a guy like him is doing writing romance, he’ll reply, “Those are the stories in my head.” A believer that the world has enough doom and gloom, he likes stories with a happy ending, regardless of genre. He lives in Indianapolis with his wonderful wife Nancy and his two sons, Seamus and Aidan. You can find Jim on line at


7 thoughts on “The Pain Makes it Real”

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  4. Great post. There’s a huge difference between reading a sad scene as an outsider and feeling a sad scene as though you were the character experiencing the emotions. It sounds like you’ve mastered the latter.

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