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.

Elvis was worried that he'd have to smile.

Elvis was worried that he’d have to smile.

“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.

Principle #1:

The hero’s suffering must be on-theme.


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 careers—advertising, 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. Brian Nelson on April 26, 2017 at 6:03 am

    Dear Steve,
    For years I told my Soldiers, “Gents, I’m a big, big fan of collective suffering. Get your shit, we’re gonna go out and suffer.”

    If you want to build a team, the formula is very simple: collective suffering followed by breaking bread. Too easy, works every time. Most people avoid the suffering, go straight to the bread, get fat & unhappy, and cannot understand why they are miserable.

    When we see a hero suffer and not quit, it is the definition of inspiration. Below the surface, we hope that we have that same ability to ‘go on’ in the midst of such suffering. I don’t think most audiences could even articulate why the suffering touches them so deeply.

    It is the universal human experience, and we are moved by exceptional examples of courage under such duress.

    Heck, we’ve taken the idea of suffering into our race. We added this formula: Grit City Effort + Shared Struggle = Kindred Connection.

    We recognized last year that there is a magic moment, post mouth-breathing, lung-searing exercise in which everyone is vulnerable & ego-less. In that moment, we love anyone and everyone that has shared or witnessed our effort/suffering. We reach out, slap asses, fist-bump, high-five total strangers that we momentarily love.

    We want to extend & engineer this moment of suffering into a moment of community unification.

    I’m a big, big fan of collective suffering. It exposes our insides, and usually that is beautiful.

    • Antwan Martin on April 26, 2017 at 7:36 am

      Brian, well said.

    • Mary Doyle on April 26, 2017 at 7:50 am

      Thanks for your insightful comments on this inspiring post.

  2. Troy B Kechely on April 26, 2017 at 6:35 am

    Great post as always. This lesson was a hard one I learned after my editor devastated the first draft of my first novel. To have my historical fiction novel be labeled a “fairy tale” was a big hit to take but she was right. My characters were too good and things worked out too well. After a heavy dose of reality check revisions I’m happy with how it turned out.

    I just read this quote last night and I feel it applies well to this in that we are defined by adversity and so should our characters be.

    “Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness, whether pursued or attained.” – Malcolm Muggeridge

  3. Laura Leinweber on April 26, 2017 at 7:09 am

    Thank you for this very insightful post. I also appreciated Brian and Troy’s insights as well. Of course…it is so true in life, with ourselves as the hero. It’s challenging to appreciate the lesson when you’re ‘in it’ though thru suffering can be the rebirth of new. (If Resistance doesn’t beat us!). I really appreciated Brian’s additional thought on the role of collective suffering. Lots of bubbling thoughts. Thank you!

    • Brian Nelson on April 26, 2017 at 9:48 am

      Thanks Laura. I generally think in sports analogies, product of a simple mind…

      Some people opt for suffering alone (swimmers, cross-country runners, golfers, etc) while others prefer to suffer as a team (soccer, football, basketball, etc).

      I would guess that Steven, Shawn, and Callie are individual sufferers, as well as most people on this site. The difficulty (for me, as a team athlete by preference) is to learn to suffer alone and in quiet. That is the Herculean strength I think we all seek here.

      However, even Michael Phelps has buddies with whom he commiserates. It might be a small tribe of individual sufferers, but it is still a tribe. It is what makes this site so wonderful.

  4. Michael Beverly on April 26, 2017 at 7:50 am

    Just read True Grit for the third time this year…

    I am always so frustrated thinking about Charles Portis not giving the poor girl a break…

    It’s bad enough he amputates her arm, but in the end, I think he amputates her heart, too.

    But, it’s a fine book, and I’ll suspect I read it again in a year or so.

    Side bar: for a lesson on suffering the runaway hit 13 Reasons Why (on Netflix) is a good place to start, the inciting incident is her suicide (she leaves behind 13 audio tapes) and the whole story is about how terrible she suffered (so bad she had to kill herself)…

    Well, here’s to more epiphanies.

  5. Desmond Devlin on April 26, 2017 at 10:36 am

    Diamonds are simply million year-old trees. We all go through the ringer in order to achieve our goals. Although I enjoy writing, I find reading a forced exercise because – due to my Asperger’s syndrome – I get anxious and impatient as hell when reading and I am page counting whenever I read. This is why I enjoy blogs and poetry/haiku as it’s much more accessible for me.

  6. Dorothy Seeger on April 26, 2017 at 2:19 pm

    Thank you, Steve. I was just deciding that my hero was suffering too much and was looking for ways to tone it down. Thanks to this post, I’ll let ‘er rip!

  7. Mitch on April 28, 2017 at 5:42 am

    Thanks, I needed that.

    It made me think of what Robert McKee said at his screenwriting seminar. It was something along these lines: “Your characters are not human beings; they are works of art.”

    This idea freed my mind up when thinking about my characters, and it got me REALLY excited.

    I think I am having fun now.

  8. Anne on April 29, 2017 at 9:06 pm

    You are so awesome! I do not believe I’ve read anything like
    that before. So great to find somebody with some original thoughts
    on this subject matter. Seriously.. thanks for starting this up.
    This website is something that’s needed on the internet, someone with a bit of originality!

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