“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.