Why do we torture our heroes?

Happy Canada Day! Now that the 5 writers have reported on our big critique adventure on Whistler Mountain, we thought we’d use the summer to blog about some of the things we learned, observed or discussed in a collaborative way. The idea is to open each week with a topic of interest (a provocative one is always fun), and then each of the 5 writers will in turn add their thoughts about it … or maybe take it in some new direction. We’ll see! We also welcome readers’ thoughts in the comments section, so jump in anytime. Since it is vacation season, after all, we hope readers will forgive us if some of us play hooky occasionally over the summer. And now, on to our first topic …

perils-of-pauline

Silk’s Post #42 — We all got the memo. You get your hero up a tree. You throw rocks at him. And then you get him down.

This writing adage about the three-act structure did have an origin, but tracking it down is not so easy. According to Barry Popik on his very cool blog, The Big Apple:

“It has been cited in print since at least 1897 and has been credited to French writers of farce. George Abbott (1887-1995), who wrote the books for the Broadway musicals Damn Yankees and Fiorello!, often used the saying, crediting it to the American playwright Augustus Thomas (1857-1934). Thomas credits French playwrights in his 1916 book.”

All I know for sure is that when I googled this well-worn novel/script/screenplay bromide, I decided to stop trying to find its genesis when I got to the 25th page of citations.

No matter. It’s received wisdom that has stood the test of time. Why?

If you’ve ever read a book on writing or sat through a workshop at a writers conference, you will be familiar with the constant exhortation to create conflict and tension on every page by giving your protagonist troubles. And then more troubles. In other words, getting him up a tree then throwing rocks at him.

Good advice, as far as it goes. But I think it’s smart to remember that this adage is shorthand for a much more nuanced principle of drama. Blind adherence to the dictum can result in “Perils of Pauline” melodrama, or produce a protagonist so hopelessly beleaguered that the hero comes across as a hapless victim.

There are three big problems with a hapless victim as protagonist.

Problem #1: Repetitive Agonizing
Over-tortured, victimized characters tend to express their constant frustration. After all, the author has to give these poor sods something to say, and when a character with a life-threatening disease, whose true love recently dumped him just after his dog was run over by a car, falls off a cliff and into a gigantic waterfall after being chased by evil aliens … well, let’s just assume the first words out of his mouth after he hits the water will not be, “Wow! What a beautiful waterfall.” How many readers want to spend a whole book with a constantly anguished or angry protagonist? We all want someone to root for, not just feel sorry for.

Problem #2: Boredom
Being in a pickle is not inherently exciting. Giving a protagonist a ton of problems to worry about and suffer from does not automatically create conflict and tension. A guy sitting in solitary confinement in a prison cell has big trouble, but watching him pace the floor and mark the days off on the wall is not interesting. Or even tense (for the reader, at least). Why? He can’t solve his problem. All he can do is be miserable. And misery without conflict, action or interaction is kinda boring. (In case Papillon comes to mind as an exception, that was Henri Charriere’s memoir and, arguably, the exciting parts were the escapes, not the scenes where he spit out his rotting teeth in a filthy cell.)

Problem #3: Miraculous Victory
“The Perils of Pauline” told classic damsel-in-distress stories. Sending in some outside force to rescue the protagonist is one way to get him, or her, down from the tree. But if you’re not (intentionally) writing melodrama, you have to figure out a way to have your hero find his own way down from the tree. If you’ve beset your protagonist with continuously mounting (and unsolved) troubles through the whole book – your character is going to have to morph from hapless victim to unstoppable Superman in the last act to get out of the mess by himself. (Okay, Papillon is certainly a breathtaking example of this … but if it hadn’t been an autobiography, who would have believed it?)

So, what does the “up a tree” dictum really tell us to do? This is something we discussed at length in Whistler, and my own personal epiphany was about the purpose of giving your protagonist troubles. It’s not to make him a miserable, complaining victim. It’s to give him something heroic to do. To put him in action. Only by the protagonist’s reaction to his troubles can we get to know what he’s made of.

Ding … the lightbulb went on for me. Give your hero problems he actually can do something about. Then let him show his stuff. Do we really care about a hero who sits up in that tree kvetching and waiting for miracle? No, we want him to be visibly overcoming his fear of heights, planning his escape, throwing apples at the baying dogs below, weaving a rope out of twigs or something … anything! The tougher the problem, the bigger the hero. But if the protagonist is not well matched with the problems to be solved, the writer may have to cheat and resort to miracles or magic, and that could actually diminish the hero.

That’s my take. What’s yours?

6 thoughts on “Why do we torture our heroes?

  1. You opened a HUGE debate here, Silk! It’s one of the most important questions to ask, and so many poorly written books fall into exactly the trap you’ve described. Piling suffering and pain on your protagonist without letting him save himself will not make a hero, but a victim too pathetic to relate to. And too boring, because there’s little or no conflict. It’s not the getting him into a pickle, but watching how he crawls out of the pickle jar is what we like to read. Then we have a character we can root for. You nailed it with pointing out the difference, Silk

  2. This is a major stumbling block for me—putting my characters into that difficult situation in the first place and then realistically getting them out of it. I’m quickly drawn out of stories where too much is piled on, chapter after chapter. But I’m told I don’t put in enough tension and conflict. Apparently my idea of realistic doesn’t make for good fiction. I’m hoping I can overcome that!

  3. I’m in the same boat by nature, JM, but trying to harden my heart. It’s hard sometimes to find that perfect balance between subtle and obvious, between “real” life and the storyworld. I’m trying to learn to play the “suspension of disbelief” instrument without hitting any sour notes. Good luck with your next story!

  4. You hit the nail on my head this time, Silk. Repetitive or overly detailed agonizing (problem #1) leads to boredom (problem #2), especially if you’ve been influenced by Charriere’s Papillion. The knife in the eye, guillotining the repetitive escapee, and the guy with the tattooed face, are still vivid in my memory, after almost 40 years, and all those details created and re-created a dark and apprehensive mood. I’m trying to create that same mood in my novel, but I’ve been imitating Papillion, creating and re-creating dark and apprehensive, and it’s gotten in the way of my story. You’ve helped me express, in words, what I’ve been trying to do in this latest re-edit, and I have to thank you once again. (I know, repetitively, but you’ve been helpful so many times.)

  5. Pingback: Hero Character? Or Hapless Victim? | Editing Addict

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