Make Your Hero Suffer
[Today’s post is a revised and updated version of a favorite of mine that ran earlier in the blog’s cycle. It’s #1 in a new series starting today.]
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?” the director asked when they got together. “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 momentarily taken aback. No actor, he said, had ever asked him that question. “Why do ask that, Elvis?”
“I’ve been watching the movies of James Dean and Marlon Brando, and I notice that they never smile. I don’t wanna smile either.”
Have you ever noticed how the most emotionally involving books and movies all have heroes that go through hell? Cool Hand Luke, The Grapes of Wrath, the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Mildred in Mildred Pierce, Sethe in Beloved, even Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.
One of the most powerful books I’ve ever read 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. You read it and you’re actually feeling sorry for the Nazis.
As writers, you and I may sometimes be tempted to go easy on our protagonists. After all, we like them. We’re rooting for them. They’re our heroes. Sometimes they’re even thinly-veiled versions of ourselves.
But giving our heroes a break is the worst thing we can do.
Instead, pour on the misery. Afflict them like 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 emotionally 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 her 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. Tom Hanks for Philadelphia. Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything.
Luke Skywalker suffers.
Rocket Raccoon suffers.
Even James Bond suffers.
The trick for us writers is knowing how to make our heroes suffer.
In the upcoming posts we’ll examine the storytelling principles that apply to this precept.
The hero’s suffering must be on-theme.