Make Your Hero Suffer, Part Two

We finished up last week with the idea that our protagonist’s suffering should not be arbitrary or capricious but on-theme.

Leo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby. His suffering was on-theme and profound.

Leo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby. His suffering was on-theme and profound.

In other words, if Jay Gatsby suffers agonies of rejection by both Daisy and the social class she represents, that suffering is because Gatsby has bought-in so totally to that materialistic, acquisitional (and very American) fantasy himself. If he weren’t so fanatically pursuing the dream represented by the green light on the end of Daisy’s dock, he wouldn’t be suffering so much. And he wouldn’t ultimately be destroyed.

The protagonist embodies the theme. (A case could be made, I know, that Jay Gatsby is not the protagonist of The Great Gatsby, but let’s put that aside for the moment for the sake of argument.)

What, then, about the villain? If the villain represents the counter-theme, how does he or she figure into the hero’s suffering?

The villain should be the cause and generator of the hero’s suffering.

Darth Vader in the first three Star Wars movies serves that function (he and the Emperor).

Noah Cross does the same in Chinatown, as does the Alien in Alien, the Predator in Predator, the shark in Jaws.

I was working on the first Steven Seagal movie, Above the Law, when one of the Lethal Weapon films (I forget which one) came out. In it was a scene where Mel Gibson was tortured by the villain. Steven Seagal saw the movie and came in the next day on fire. “Write me a torture scene!”

I remember thinking at the time, “That is the dumbest, most derivative idea I’ve ever heard.” But of course Steve was right. That type of scene is a convention of the thriller genre, what Shawn calls the “Hero at the Mercy of the Villain” scene. We wrote it for Steve and it played like gangbusters.

The villain should be the source of the hero’s suffering.

But what if the villain is internal? What if the antagonist exists only inside the hero’s head?

Even better.

The villain in The Great Gatsby isn’t Tom Buchanan, brutish and “hulking” as he may be. (I actually like the character of Tom Buchanan; I have a lot of sympathy for him.)

The villain is reality.

The villain is The Way Life Really Works.

“But,” says Nick Carraway to Gatsby, “you can’t recreate the past.”

“Why, of course you can, old sport!”

Let me revise that statement from four lines ago. The villain is Gatsby’s self-delusion, his dream of recapturing a romantic moment and making it live again permanently. A moment, we might add to make it even worse, that was never real, except in Gatsby’s mind, even in the moment it was happening.

Which brings us to another, deeper aspect of the hero’s suffering.

If that suffering must be on-theme, then the more profound and universal the theme, the greater the emotional impact on the reader.

What makes Gatsby’s downfall so resonant (it must be, because the book is still being taught in English classes ninety years after its publication) is that Gatsby’s suffering is so American. His dream is the American dream. You’ve believed it. I’ve believed it. We’ve all operated under its spell our whole lives.

Scott Fitzgerald chased that dream as passionately as any writer ever, and it killed him just as brutally as it killed Gatsby.

That dream is the villain of The Great Gatsby.

It’s a powerful exercise for us as writers to ask ourselves these questions:

  1. Is my hero suffering enough?
  2. What is the source of my hero’s suffering?
  3. Is that suffering on-theme?
  4. What the heck is my theme?
  5. Is my theme big enough? (And the corollary: Does my hero’s suffering resonate powerfully enough with the reader?)

The villain in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is mindless, bullheaded nationalism. This is embodied by the boys’ teacher, Kantorek. All the suffering of the book’s hero Paul Baumer and his friends derives from that notion and, literally, from Kantorek, who as its passionate proponent urges them to march off to war in the first place.

That’s why the story works so powerfully.

The hero must suffer.

The suffering must be on-theme.

The bigger and more powerful the theme, the greater the suffering—and the greater the emotional impact on the reader.

We’ll talk next week about why suffering is so important in a book or a movie.


Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.



Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careersÔÇöadvertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.



Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"



  1. Mary Doyle on January 6, 2016 at 8:25 am

    Really enjoying this “suffering-on-theme” series. The five questions you included are especially useful – looking forward to next week. As always, thanks!

    • Joel D Canfield on January 6, 2016 at 12:39 pm

      We need an online repository of notes with stuff like these 5 questions.

      • Ruminator on January 7, 2016 at 10:46 am

        I propose a Pressfield Wiki… ­čÖé

      • Robin on January 7, 2016 at 2:58 pm

        Printer, scissors, thumbtack, bulletin board. Repository complete.

  2. Nicole Poulain on January 6, 2016 at 8:42 am

    I love the simplicity of this subject, it’s something I reflect on all the time regarding its use in various of my current projects, at different intensities. I completely agree with its thematic necessity, otherwise it will stand out as a sore thumb, evidence of sub-par writing that threw suffering in there without knowing the needed recipe, so to speak. And what a quality killer. (And job killer for that matter).

  3. Sean Crawford on January 6, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    I’ve been thinking of poor Archie Bunker on TV. My dad liked him.
    Producer Norman Lear said it was a tragedy of a man trying to feed his family. I think the villain was the way life really works.

    I think that, similar to Gatsby, Archie somehow thought he would be valued if he left school to help his family, and if he left civilian life to help his country, and got a quick blue-collar job, but actually, he went through life without getting credit for this. Not even from his daughter and son-in-law. At least his wife Edith knew.

    • M. Talmage Moorehead on January 7, 2016 at 11:45 am

      Thanks for this intriguing insight. I never knew the background of Archie Bunker, and I used to watch the show once in awhile. I thought it had a rigid message: “Don’t be an ignorant embarrassment by failing to hold the views and values of Hollywood comedy writers.” Actually, I think this basic message hasn’t evolved over the years, but I see now that there was more going on with Archie Bunker. Thanks for enlightening me.

  4. Doug Keeler on January 6, 2016 at 3:16 pm

    Educational & illuminating, & since I write in the Crime/Mystery/Thriller genre, the hero at the mercy of the villain is critical. Many thanks, Steven!

  5. Dick Yaeger on January 6, 2016 at 3:54 pm

    My hero suffered so much at the hands of the villain that I concluded he had to die and I had to rewrite big time. Now the protagonist is the villain.

  6. Sonja on January 6, 2016 at 8:19 pm

    I’m loving this. I found I couldn’t write as well when I don’t keep throwing hard things like suffering and bad luck at my character. I think it’s because it’s so much more fun to relate to someone who is at the mercy of life/a villain, than a person who has everything coming up peachy. So obvious, but much harder to execute on paper.

    As usual, thanks for this series!

  7. Mitch Bossart on January 7, 2016 at 10:22 pm


    Being a first time screenwriter, I wondered if my protagonist was suffering too much.

    But this series makes me think not.

    On theme though? And what is my theme? Got me thinking…

  8. Bev Ross on January 13, 2016 at 11:41 am

    Wonderful information. I am so excited and happy to see how Steven Pressfield does it. His books are uniquely deep and rich with characters who are dark, complicated and fascinating.
    Understanding how he gets there, aside from genius is really helpful.
    As a more random, abstract thinker and writer, I can well do with this kind of direction.

    Thank you
    Kind Regards,

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