Make Your Hero Suffer, Part Three
Continuing our exploration of the protagonist’s ordeal:
Why, we might ask, does the hero have to suffer at all? Why can’t she just be happy? Wouldn’t that work just as well in a story?
The hero has to suffer because:
- Suffering is part of the Hero’s Journey (as articulated by Joseph Campbell, C.G. Jung, and others) and virtually every story is a version of the Hero’s Journey. But more importantly …
- Suffering produces insight. Suffering leads to wisdom. Suffering forces the hero to change.
Jack Nicholson changes in Chinatown, Julianne Moore changes in Far From Heaven, Alan Ladd changes in Shane. Each one traverses a hero’s journey. Each one suffers. Each one is altered by his or her suffering.
You, the writer, invent your hero’s suffering for precisely this reason. What ordeal, you ask yourself, can I put my protagonist through that will compel her to deepen her understanding of life and of herself, that will force her to confront some issue she has been either oblivious to or deliberately hiding from, that will make her change and grow (even if that change and growth involve further suffering)?
You ask yourself that because if you didn’t ask it, there’d be no story.
Far From Heaven is not the world’s greatest movie, but it’s a really interesting and provocative one. It was written and directed by Todd Haynes (who just did Carol).
Let’s examine it in terms of the hero’s suffering.
Far From Heaven is a period piece, set in 1957 Connecticut. Julianne Moore is the protagonist. When we meet her at the story’s start, she’s a happy suburban wife with a handsome, successful husband (Dennis Quaid), two beautiful kids, a great house, etc. By movie’s end, her hubby has turned out to be gay, the marriage has imploded, the kids are shell-shocked, Julianne’s broke, with no marketable job skills, not to mention she’s also had a heartbreaking platonic affair with her complex and highly intelligent African-American gardener (Dennis Haysbert) that leaves her not only emotionally devastated but a social outcast to all the other little suburban housewives who had been her friends.
What I love most about this movie is the final visual.
It’s a crane shot, looking down on the center of the suburban town. Julianne Moore is in her station wagon, packed up, with the two kids in back. She is leaving the wreckage of her once-happy life. We don’t know where she’s going (neither does she), what she will do, or how she will survive. The camera pulls back, back, back, widening the shot as the station wagon drives off (Oh, I forgot to say: it’s winter) to heaven only knows where.
Julianne has suffered, and she’s about to suffer a lot more.
Is it an unhappy ending?
Is it tragic?
No, because her suffering has produced wisdom.
Julianne has gone from a blind (or, better, self-blinded), dependent, clueless conformist who is living a lie to a heartbroken but now-eyes-wide-open individual who recognizes her predicament and is, at last, facing the fact that she and only she can create a way out of it.
Suffering elevates consciousness.
Suffering wakes us up.
As we in the audience watch Julianne drive off in her town-and-country wagon we might ask ourselves, “Who would we rather be? One of the brain-dead, affluenza-addled housewives still sipping martinis in Suburbanville—or Julianne, who now at least knows the score and, somehow, someway, will find her way eventually?”
Please note, too, that Julianne’s suffering is totally on-theme.
The theme of Far From Heaven is self-delusion.
Who could be more self-deluded that a happy young wife in the American suburbs of the 50s?
Todd Haynes’ movies (see Carol as well) are usually about a surface reality that is in conflict with a hidden reality. The hidden reality is the real one. The track of the story is from false reality to real reality.
The medium of transition is the hero’s suffering.
Because it hurts to wake up. It hurts to change. It hurts to have your eyes opened to something you’ve been squeezing them shut against your whole life.
To recap the past three weeks’ posts:
- Don’t be afraid to make your hero suffer.
- Keep the suffering on-theme.
- Make the suffering produce greater consciousness in the hero.
- Make the suffering produce change in the hero.
If you can stand it, I’m going to stay on this subject next week too. We’ll talk about that old cliche, the character’s “arc,” and examine how this works with suffering.
Thanks for the Far From Heaven example. It’s a spot-on illustration for “suffering on theme.” Oh, and by the way, we can “stand it” for another week – bring it on!
This is one of my writing’s weaknesses. Spend as long as you like on it because I’ll like it however long you spend.
I think you need a new line of bumper stickers “Suffering elevates consciousness” is a really awesome quote.
I have noticed that I personally like some stories with sad endings and people have asked why. “Because its the right ending.” I didn’t know until recently that its because sometimes the right ending shows the character changing, as you said, on theme. It illustrates a truth of being human (sometimes we don’t all win). Even when its a downer, it isn’t a tragedy. Little Miss Sunshine comes to mind. She doesn’t win the pageant but her bifurcated family comes together in the end.
Finding the theme is difficult. I struggled with my first writings. I learned that the first place to look is within myself. I’m always asking myself what my “inner self” is trying to teach me. I’m always hoping I can listen to her. She’s wiser than me and she’s giving me clues through whatever I am struggling to make.
I think when we really connect with a certain movie or book its a clue. Our inner self is stamping “Listen to this! Its the next step!” on our foreheads.
More, Steven. More.
Yes, more about the arc of transformation!
Do you ever write about how much detail to go into vs summaries and dialogue? I like books that go into detail and still drive the plot forward however I tend to push things forward too fast, skipping details that might add depth and feeling. How do you sense what the reader needs to know?
I am not a writer I am an artist. I like to hang around this web site because I learn things from it. I have to laugh because everyday I write a script in my head that is something like this article. My passion is to be an unstoppable artist and I know suffering is part of the deal. My art is driving down that road this very minute alone not knowing where to go next and yes it is winter outside. My life is better as an artist, I have suffering and wisdom on my side and my art is on the move. What more could a guy ask for. Wisdom also tells me to say thank you every minute of the journey.
Shalom – Bing
“Who would we rather be? One of the brain-dead, affluenza-addled housewives still sipping martinis in Suburbanville…”
5 years ago I was respectably married (a church lay-leader, living in Yorba Linda the birthplace of Nixon: conservative, affluent, suburb heaven).
Today I’m broke, unemployed –working as an illegal migrant worker in the third world– divorced, lost all my friends, excommunicated (became an atheist, so I’m hated now too).
You know, I’d never go back. Never.
But, what I find really interesting:
If you’d asked me five years ago, Would I want this to happen?
No, I’d have rather died. And I mean that, really.
SO: How does the audience KNOW that this destructive, mind wrenching, ugly, stomach turning, ENDS up making you a better person?
I know, because I’ve lived it.
But why/how do they know?
Or do they?
Is the whole idea just an exercise in allowing the audience to vicariously live this soul altering journey?
Is that what we sell as writers?
A way to understand change without actually having to change?
I grok this.
Michael, I think that stories (like the movie “Far From Heaven” and of course every other story) are in their own way rehearsals for those of us who see them or read them. Maybe we’re not actually having to change in that specific moment. But that hour of change is coming for all of us. More than once, would you agree? You’re living your own hero’s journey right now. If an audience could somehow see it, they would “know,” I think. They would get it. And they’d save it up, on some level, for that day when their own Big Change come around to them. Good luck to you and Godspeed!
“But that hour of change is coming for all of us. More than once, would you agree?”
Ask not for whom the bell tolls…
And thank you for the kind wishes.
Are you my brother?
I am on my own hero’s journey, although mine is different than yours. But that would make complete sense, given we are individuals who have a history unique to each and a different path to travel.
It will be interesting to see how the story develops and I’m looking forward to each and every step along the way.
Great stuff and Steven’s post made me think quite a lot.
I love this topic. Suffering is THE common human experience. I told my Soldiers for years, “I’m a big, big fan of collective suffering. It is how we build teams. The team building, true connection creating formula is simple: collective suffering followed by breaking bread. Double days in August are as much about team building as fitness.
To witness human suffering without relenting, without breaking is the definition of inspiration. We glimpse the spark of the divine, the spirit of life, humanity, fighting for survival. Nothing is more beautiful.
Rocky, Rudy, The Blind Side, all great sports dramas are built around this theme. In fact, I guess you’re right that they are all the Hero’s Journey…I’m just a gym-rat who thinks in sports analogies all the time.
I don’t write, but this blog topic has made me want to consider it!
These posts on making the hero suffer have been an inspiring “aha moment” for me! I now know what I need to do to rework a young adult series I have been writing for a number of years. Looking forward to next week already! THANK YOU Steven. I don’t remember how I stumbled upon your site, but I’m glad I did…
The universe is made up of stories, not atoms.
— Muriel Rukeyser
Steven, I’ve long read you and have stopped scratching my head at how you keep coming up with content that resonates with not only the writer in me, but ME. Astonishing.
You wouldn’t cotton to this, but you got some pretty broad shoulders, sir. And there are many more feet than just mine standing on them.
I saw this also as the amateur having his eyes finally opened and becoming the pro he always wanted to be, because now he understands the bull that Resistance really is in all its destructive, devious ways. And once you see it, really see it, there’s no going back. Even though it’s a daily, hourly struggle some days…
Thank you for these posts, Steven.
Wow, I loved this. I am looking forward to more!