Make them suffer

art-suffering

Joe’s Post #42 – That was my mantra at the writer’s retreat. “Make your heroes suffer.” Make it hard for them.  Or, as Silk put it, torture them.

But here’s the thing. Like my fellow writers have said, that can lead to melodrama and pointless infliction of disasters upon the hero. Lemme give you an example.

We have our main character, Joe, a heroic sounding fellow, who gets hit by a car on the way to work. That’s suffering, right? While he’s lying there, his arm broken and the bone sticking through his skin (yuck!), someone comes and takes his iphone, his collection of vintage Star Wars figures (NOT TOYS!!!) and his shoes for some reason, then kicks him in the nuts. Ouch. More suffering. But wait, the ambulance arrives but skids on a patch of ice and runs over his legs, then crashes into a telephone pole that falls not to the left of him, not to the right of him, but bang, wham, right onto his chest, and before poor old Joe can say holy sh*t, wtf is happening, a bomb explodes and he’s riddled with shrapnel and while he’s screaming in agony, the last thing he sees is a meteor heading straight for him.

perilsSuffering? Sure. I guess. But would you want to read this? Maybe Jerry Bruckheimer would, but it’s just a pile of bad crap happening to heroic Joe. That’s not a story. That’s not what I meant by making him suffer.

Suffering is so much more. It’s about making the impossible choices. Which child would you save and which one would you let die? What are the consequences of the choices made and how can they affect the character? It’s about personal stakes and how can things matter to the hero?

Or, something simpler. Our heroic Cop-Joe walks into a bar looking to find a serial killer. He says, “hey, I need to know something,” and the bartender says, “sure, you need to know about the guy who came in her last night, all covered in blood wearing a name tag that said, ‘Hi, my name’s Bob Bobbington’ and oh he dropped his wallet so here’s his address and an NRA card that says he owns an AR-15 and he’s written on the back of the card that he’s booby-trapped the door with explosives.” To which Joe says, “Thanks, I was looking for directions to the bathroom but whatever.”

Who wants to read a scene like that? It’s way, way too easy for our hero. To make that scene harder for him, what if it’s an old bar he used to visit but now he’s a cop and not welcome there? What if the bartender doesn’t actually want to talk to him? What if the bartender lies? What if the bar is full of bikers or rabid Harry Potter fans who think Cop-Joe looks like Voldemort? Oh the possibilities.

Suffering should be less about random occurrences that plop on the character’s head like bird poo. They should be born of the actions the hero takes and the personal choices that are made, but also born of the wants/desires/hopes/fears of those the hero encounters, the obstacles faced and overcome (or not). The poor bugger doesn’t have to suffer on every page, but the harder it is for the character to reach his goal, the more the choices have consequences which may make things EVEN HARDER, the more the scene, the chapter, the story can sizzle.

At least for me.

As I start my rewrite, I know there are places where I can make the choices harder, make my stakes more personal, make my character suffer as much by their own hand as much as anything.

Oh, I have a few scenes in my book that are like that. One character ends up destroying what she set out to save. Another has to make a terrible sacrifice at the end.

But oh, I can do so much better.

And I will.

Pages Rewritten: 15

Queries this Week: 1

Rejections: 1

Cool Movies Seen: 2 (See The Heat, freaking hilarious. See Man of Steel, but go knowing it’s not the greatest movie ever made.)

7 thoughts on “Make them suffer

  1. Job 5:7: “Man is born to sorrow, as sparks fly upward.”
    Akira Kurosawa: “Man is born crying, and when he has cried enough he dies.”

  2. ” but the harder it is for the character to reach his goal, the more the choices have consequences which may make things EVEN HARDER, the more the scene, the chapter, the story can sizzle.”

    What about choices the protagonist makes combined with random but inevitable occurrences that thwart the goal, or make the protagonist change the goal? Am I crazy, or inclined to over complication, or is this a viable way to write?

    • Great questions! I’m inclined to think random events are less effect, but inevitable occurrences that thwart the goal could be great obstacles. Let me give you an example. Random event. Rain storm. Kind of cool. The character has done nothing to bring on the rainstorm (assuming no magic) but it can create an obstacle. Nothing wrong with that. Makes it harder on our hero. So then, what if he speeds because he HAS to get someone in time. Then he crashes, perhaps an inevitable result due to the slick conditions on the road. More complications due to combination of the two.

      However, I think the trap with random occurrences is that they can become a crutch. Need something to happen? Drop a plane on the hero’s head. But how much better is it if it’s something that happens due to the character’s choices?

      Honestly, I’m not sure there’s just one right way to make great scene. Or story. Or novel. Just things to think about that COULD make it better. 🙂

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