Make Your Hero Suffer
[Down to the last two days of our Black Irish Christmas Special—the 7-Book Megabundle for Writers. Keep a couple for yourself and spread the rest around to “worthy recipients.”]
There’s a story about Elvis:
He was about to make his first movie (“Love Me Tender”) and he was getting a little nervous. He phoned the director and asked to speak with him privately.
“What is it, Elvis? You look upset. Is there anything you want to ask me?”
“Yes,” said Elvis. “Am I gonna be asked to smile in this movie?”
The director was taken aback. No actor, he said, had ever asked him that question. “Why do ask that, Elvis?”
“I’ve been watching James Dean’s movies and Marlon Brando’s, and I notice they never smile. I don’t wanna smile either.”
Have you ever noticed how the most emotionally involving books and movies all have heroes whom the authors put through hell? Cool Hand Luke, The Grapes of Wrath, The Revenant. Mildred in Mildred Pierce, Sethe in Beloved, even Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.
One of my favorite books is The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer. It’s the true story of the German retreat before the Russians on the Eastern front in WWII. Talk about suffering. Yet when friends asked how I liked it, I replied, “I love it.” The more the heroes suffered, the more deeply their travail hooked me.
As writers, you and I may sometimes be tempted to go easy on our protagonists. After all, we like them. They’re our heroes. They may even be thinly-veiled versions of ourselves.
But giving our heroes a break is the most destructive thing we can do.
Instead, pour on the misery. Afflict them like God afflicted Job. Beat them up like Karl Malden did to Brando in One-Eye Jacks or Gene Hackman did to Clint Eastwood (not to mention Morgan Freeman) in Unforgiven. Torture them emtionally like Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven or Still Alice. Break their hearts like Meryl Streep in Out of Africa (or any, or all, of Ms. Streep’s other movies.)
Readers will love it.
Audiences will love it.
Think of your lead character as if he or she were an actor. Actors love to suffer. They win Oscars for it. Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything.
Luke Skywalker suffers.
Han Solo suffers.
Even James Bond suffers.
The trick to suffering inflicted on the hero, however, is it must be on-theme.
We can’t just piles agonies willy-nilly on our protagonists (though that will work too.) Their ordeal has to be focused. It must resonate with the story’s theme.
The theme in Out of Africa is personal possession. Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen is obsessed with owning what she loves, as her lover Robert Redford as Denys Finch Hatton teases her in the script by Kurt Luedtke:
My Kikuyu. My Limoges. My farm. It’s an awful lot to own, isn’t it?
In the end of course Karen loses everything including Finch Hatton. It works powerfully in the drama because her suffering is on-theme.
The theme in Cool Hand Luke is authority, specifically the authority of society imposed by force. The prison captain, played by Strother Martin, spells it out for the convicts on the road gang:
You run one time, you got yourself one set of chains. You run twice you got yourself two sets. You ain’t gonna need no third set, ’cause you gonna get your mind right.
Luke, played by Paul Newman, refuses to get his mind right. All his suffering comes directly from that. That’s what makes it so powerful. It is on-theme.
Cool Hand Luke is really the Christ story set in the early 50s in a Florida prison camp. The protagonist, as always, embodies the theme—the refusal to submit to earthly authority—and he, like Jesus, is crucified by the system.
We’ll explore this topic in greater depth next week.
gave me the chills…looking forward to next installment
Good stuff, as usual. And Karen, in the end, not only loses everything, but gives away what little she has left — and that, what might be considered most treasured. The compass she gives to Farah.
One of the most powerful scenes (to my mind), is that scene, where she turns back to Farah on the train platform and says, “I want to hear you say my name.” He draws himself up. “You are Karen, sabu.” Every time.
Yeah, Joe, that scene is always a lump-in-the-throater for me too.
Thanks so much for this, perfect timing.
And well said!
I guess maybe that is why those of us that have watched Cool Hand Luke a dozen or so times have also watched Shawshank Redemption multiple times as well. Poor Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) was innocent! Thanks Steve.
A great reminder and, as usual, delivered when I most need to hear it. Thanks so much – looking forward the next installment on this. Happy New Year to everyone at Black Irish – thanks for everything!
Great post. Tragic heroes mince the heartstrings. It’s the bittersweet aspect. Out of Africa … Denys dies in a plane crash but the layering of him never really being there makes it worse, and somehow his death let’s Karen “out”, on some level. Now he can’t come back. Oh, the irony. Life goes on.
Excellent reminder about the need to put our heroes through the wringer. Many thanks!
Sophie’s choice. Making that choice and then living with that choice.
Thanks for this! It reminds me of the Breaking Bad and Dexter series, each main character goes through excruciating moments. From the start, I was hooked.
All this is True, and it’s the reason I no more read great literature. I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to house more misery in my heart.
I am curious — does anyone know of a great literary novel that does not describe deep human suffering ?
Christine, I don’t know about the great stuff.
I enjoyed a Jane Austen novel once, Emma, and I ended up underlining a lot because the characters were so educational to me.
I’ve enjoyed the classics of Mark Twain and A.A. Milne.
The Human Comedy by Saroyan has a distinct voice. There are tears—it’s wartime—but also a warm regard for the human condition. it’s been a radio play, an Andy Rooney movie, and I hear Tom Hanks is going to remake it.
And the wooden (antique) wheels start rolling …
Thanks for inspiration. HNY.
What a great read. I’m working on something at the moment that is based on reality and as scene after scene keeps raining shit on the protagonist, I started thinking, “Oh my. What a Debbie Downer story/script. I’d better lighten it up.” I’ll re-think that… However, I love it when characters finally transcend the suffering and come through to the other side – even if the external events haven’t changed. If they make the internal shifts, then I’m happy. Thanks as always for your inspiration. Your books kick me in the behind over and over again and keep me moving forward.
And then there is Shane, who sacrifices security and acceptance for Plantonic justice.
Great advice, once again. Thank you.
I’m so hesitant to put my protagonist through pain that she speaks of it in Chapter 0, admonishing me to rewrite her story. Talk about embarrassing! I think my problem is called “sentimentality.” I heard a J. K. Rowling interview in which she said that she hates sentimentality.
Thanks for taking the time to make this point crystal clear. I’m going to keep trying to write like a pro.
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