why heroes must suffer to be interesting

Why Protagonists Must Suffer to Be Interesting

“Stories are about things happening to protagonists.”

Would you agree with that statement? I’d agree. But we’d have to add a further statement: Interesting stories are about things that matter happening to protagonists.”

Not just things that matter generically—but things that matter very specifically to this specific character. Sometimes these things will be wonderful things: achieving victory, falling in love, getting a promotion. But sometimes—and more to the point—these things are going to be tragedies. They’re going to be major obstacles between your protagonist and his goals, and he’s going to suffer because of them.

Or at least he should.

Mira Nair’s Amelia, a fictionalization of Amelia Earhart’s life, does a fine job covering the major moments in the doomed aviatrix’s life. Sounds good, right? What’s not to love? Drama, color, larger-than-life characters, airplanes! And yet the story falls flat. It fails to engage us emotionally in what should be a very emotional story, and it fails for one very simple reason:

The protagonist doesn’t seem to be involved either.

This version of Amelia has her tripping through life, running into the occasional speed bump, but overcoming every obstacle with a shrug of her shoulders, because, hey, she’s the hero of this story and everything’s gotta work out just fine for her (until, ahem, the end). You know it, she knows it, all God’s children know it.

There’s no suffering in this story. And because there’s no suffering, the things that happen don’t really seem to matter. Even though most protagonists do conquer in the end, a good story must have the power to make readers doubt it. A good story should have the power to engage them in a character’s suffering even when they know it’s all going to turn out right in the end.

Every time an obstacle shows up between your protagonist and his goal, ask yourself: Is this just something that happens to him? Does he just brush it off and move on? Or does it hit him where it hurts? Does it make him (and readers) doubt his ability to make to the end of his journey?

If not, you might want to reconsider whether your conflict wouldn’t be just a little more interesting with a dash or two of honest suffering thrown into the mix.

Tell me your opinion: Think about your protagonists. How much are you making them suffer?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. So true.

    The character needs to feel what happens matters, that the ups and downs she’s dealing with are real. And if you have to choose between savoring an “up” and overcoming a “down”, it’s human nature to care more about the latter.

    The other side of it ought to be “overcoming” that pain, or at least coping actively with it. *Spider-Man 2* was almost a perfect movie, but I never liked how Peter’s bad luck seemed to be more active than he was, choreographing all his suffering. If he’d just made a couple more efforts to get ahead of his problems and seen them fail, it would have really sold me that he was being pushed so hard.

    • This is a really good point. It’s not enough to make a character suffer. The character has to (at some point in the story) find the guts to fight back against the suffering. Otherwise, he’s just a sad sack – and who wants to read that?

  2. Oh, my poor Lynessa. She starts the novel as a pampered princess that gets uprooted quite roughly by a barbarian and transplanted into an alien culture. When she is *almost* used to things the Sun gets stolen and she is forced to go with her husband on a quest through frozen wastelands and weird creatures.

  3. Eric Troyer says:

    After watching “Saving Mr. Banks,” I watched Disney’s “Mary Poppins” again after many years. Mary Poppins is clearly the protagonist in the Disney movie yet she has no character arc and the only suffering she does is mentioned right at the very end.

    Yet, the story does have a major character arc–it’s Mr. Banks (hence the name of the newer movie). The character arc actually takes up very little of the Disney movie, since so much of the movie is spent frolicking, singing, and dancing, but it’s there and it’s strong. He suffers greatly and, finally, is “saved.”

    Interesting that a protagonist can spark change in another character without going through change herself.

    • The main arc character won’t always be the *main* character. Mary Poppins is actually what the Dramatic theory calls the “impact character” – the catalyst causing the change. Good eye for spotting that!

      • Interesting. I didn’t know there was a name for that kind of character. I’ve been wondering about that in the context of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. With your concept in mind, it would seem that Jack Sparrow is an “impact character”, since nothing really bad ever happens to him, and Will and Elizabeth are the actual protagonists. (It also explains why the fourth movie was so bad — trying to turn a perfect impact character into a protagonist).

        In my own WIP, my protagonist is a professional safecracker who is herself locked inside an airtight safe (and which only she knows how to open, naturally!). I think that is enough suffering for anybody!

        • Jack is a great example. For all that he’s easily the most entertaining and prominent character in the story, he’s clearly not the main character – as evidenced by the fact that Elizabeth and Will’s story begins before he ever shows up.

  4. This is a really important concept to internalize. Conflict is not the event itself, but rather the impact of the event on the protagonist. And that means that there is absolutely nothing that inherently causes conflict.

    Not even a nuclear apocalypse. What does a nuclear apocalypse matter if the protagonist already has an awesome, well-stocked fallout shelter in which he was already planning to spend the rest of his life? If the protagonist has no problems–no goals that are being impeded–then there is no conflict, and if there is no conflict, then there’s no reason for a reader to care. If the character doesn’t, why should the reader?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Spot on. If the character is serene in his reaction to conflict, there is no conflict. If he’s not blocked in his goal – and if he doesn’t *care* that he’s been blocked in his goal – then there literally is no conflict. Snore.

  5. Connie Jean says:

    This is a really great article! I’m starting to see exactly why a few stories that I didn’t really like (and, ahem, a few of my own first drafts) didn’t work. I think I’m pretty safe with my current second draft now, though. My poor MC gets driven out of her village (the only place she’s ever lived) when dragons attack and forced to wander for a while in the forest. Once she survives that and gets back, she finds her family died. Then the (evil, clever) dragons start whispering lies to her in her grief, and she falls into self harm and very nearly kills herself. Then it takes her the rest of the story to pull out of her slump. So I think I *might* have enough suffering for the poor girl. 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is actually a great example of how to progress the “worst thing” that could happen to your character. Getting driven out of your village? That’s pretty bad. But what’s worse? Your family dies! And on and on. Good job.

  6. Oh, don’t get me started. The poor guy’s been through a lot even before the novel starts.

    His dad was a paranoid, his mother ran off. He cared for his dad until he died, before embarking on a new journey on his own, getting an education, building is firm, wooing his girl … who he fails to impregnate. It’s all they want; it’s all they can’t. After years of paying for assisted reproductive technology, every attempt further ruining his own economy and endangering the business, she finally gets pregnant.

    Then they’re in a car crash. The fetus dies. His fiancée is hurt to the point she can no longer pursue her dream career. Their love is hurt to the point that it cannot go on. He fails to keep his company running, it goes bankrupt. And still, this guy doesn’t give up. Adamant to get his old life back, he starts off the book by applying for a new job and make amends with the love of his life. Then, the real story begins and with it, all hell breaks loose. As if he didn’t already have enough of his mind.

    It’s a lot, I know. Probably too much for a backstory. Probably enough to warrant a book of its own. Still working on my first draft, the idea is for us to root for this character who never seem to give up, and then to feel for him when he does. Luckily, he has the most positive friend to force him back up. They’re going to beat this new thing as well, impossible or not.

    So, what I’m trying to say is, thanks for your blog, constantly making me think and rethink my novel.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I love complicated, twisty backstories. I’ve had more than one backstory run with me as well.

  7. Steve Mathisen says:

    I learn something every time I read one of your articles. This time the comments were quite instructive as well. I have a story I am working on that the whole “main character not being the protagonist” thing applies to. It makes me feel I was right about how I am constructing the story after all. 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If you haven’t read Dramatica, I highly recommend it. It’s heavy going, but definitely worth the work.

  8. Good post as usual. I finished Behold the Dawn, and I really enjoyed the tight casting/story line and the realistic morals, but speaking as a Christian like you, I felt Annan might have gone too far to have a shot a redemption when he killed Bertrand. I was mostly fine with him killing nameless people in battle or in self defense but that act seemed like cold blooded murder which is unforgivable even to God and just didn’t sit with me well. I was wondering if there was an ulterior (perhaps practical) motivation I didn’t catch or if we just have a different opinion on the matter.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks for reading! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. The point of the story, of course, is that God grants redemption not just for the little sins but for the biggest imaginable. What Annan did in killing Bertrand was no different from things he’d done in his past (although perhaps with better motivation that past sins), so it was really just a dramatization of the depths to which Annan had fallen.

  9. Love the article. I’m rereading your Character Arc series right now. Looking forward to the rest of it.

    One thing not mentioned yet – It is so much fun to chuck the MC into worsening situations. How else are you going to see what she does. I got the “worst thing question” from James Scott Bell. It is fantastic for breaking writer’s block.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Putting characters through trials is all about seeing how they react. If they’re not reacting, what’s the point? Whether they cave or (hopefully) rise to the challenge, it’s not what happens to them that’s interesting, so much as what they do with it.

    • I like that! Also a good approach, I think, for writers who become too attached to their characters and, thus, don’t want anything bad to happen to them. Once you’ve imagined the worst-case scenario, trials and conflicts more fitting for the story are going to feel a lot less unpleasant.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

        It’s all about making our characters uncomfortable enough that they get up and move to a better place–both physically and spiritually. So if you look at it that way, we’re really doing them a favor…

  10. I like the advice here for different reasons. 1) I consider this tidbit to be a general trait that is consistent with narrative rather than a formula. 2) It’s pleasing to know that I was on the right track. Thanks K.M. I think its time to also follow your blog.

  11. Katie–
    As usual, your post takes up a matter of importance for any fiction writer, arguably for any non-fiction writer who wants his readers emotionally involved. There can be no easy row to hoe for a lead character, and s/he must not “turn the other cheek.” The lead character in a novel MUST be taxed, challenged, at risk, and must take aggressive (I almost said “proactive,” but I hate the word) steps to win against odds that are serious, not trivial. In short, if it’s going to matter to the reader, it has to matter and be acted on by the protagonist.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, this definitely applies to non-fiction as well. The Amelia story, though a movie, is, of course, non-fiction stuff. And I have a feeling the real-life Amelia reacted to her setbacks with a little more anguish and uncertainty than the movie version.

  12. Such a simple truth that so many writers miss. Perfect people are boring…and not real. If we don’t care about the protagonist, we don’t care about the story. We tend to not care if someone is perfect.

    I plan to share this with my writing group since so many of our newer members haven’t figured this out yet.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Weaknesses and uncertainties appeal to us, not only because we all share them, but because they offer the potential for growth. When a character is able to face his problems and overcome them, we always pay attention.

  13. I’m letting my protagonist be aware of his life running out of his hands with making him a terminal kid(Chf ) and on top of that he must save the world! (He is the one) lol

  14. Hambone's book is post-apocalyptic says:

    Poor Philip. Let’s see, he’s been through PTSD in the Vietnam War (the book takes place in the 70s), a nuclear apocalypse, the death of his wife and son, the death of his girlfriend, the loss of his right eye, the days he spent hunting down the person who killed his wife and never found her, a fire, an avalanche, a disease that killed most of his group, a flood, torture in a tiny cabin, and an emergency relocation to a sketchy “sanctuary”. I think that’s a little too much conflict…

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