Make them suffer


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.)

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 …


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?