Audiences want to see characters suffer.
Not because they’re brimming with Schadenfreude or salivate watching people in pain but because they are more interested in watching a character in a difficult situation than one who is not.
And ladies and gentlemen, if your character isn’t dealing with a situation that is challenging, life changing or out and out dire then I have to wonder why we bothering to tell this story.
Make your protagonist’s BIG goal too easy to attain and you run the risk of a weak and less that engaging story.
Let’s think about the protagonist John Book from the award-winning (and deeply satisfying) 80s film “Witness.” In the first part of the story protagonist Book is faced with a brutal murder to solve – which is challenging enough – but he’s also charged with protecting the young witness whose Amish mother is uncooperative AND he discovers that the murderer he’s seeking is a colleague. THEN he’s betrayed by his superior, badly wounded and has to drive the hell out of dodge with young witness in tow. Once out of dodge he nearly dies an agonising death on an Amish farm because the elders aren’t super keen on modern medicine.
And that’s in just the first 20 minutes.
But I love my characters, you say, I find it hard to treat them badly. Harden up, I say, and start treating ‘em mean. Still not sold? Consider the challenges the ever popular Jane Austen (or any of those nasty Bronte sisters) inflicted on their protagonists – they were brutal!
So here are just 15 ways you can make your protagonist’s life hell and create more possibilities in your plot.
- Let them make stupid mistakes.
- Throw them into an environment that seriously hinders their goal.
- Put them in a culture that isn’t conducive to achieving their goal.
- Give them a childhood “wound” that still impacts on them.
- Give them a physical or mental weakness that will hinder their journey.
- Saddle them with a wounded/useless/troublesome colleague or buddy.
- Create more antagonistic forces in their day to day world e.g. the door that sticks, the stupid dog that pees everywhere, the zombies that roam the streets – that sort of thing.
- Allow a significant personality flaw to cause them problems.
- Let “the worst possible thing that could happen” happen.
- Give them a secret they’re deeply ashamed of.
- Give them a difficult family member to deal with in addition to everything else.
- Let them lose something really important to them.
- Give them more than one significant antagonistic character to deal with.
- Give them a habit that bites them in the ass later down the track.
- Think about who or what their biggest support is – then pull it out from under them. Like, you know, kill them.
Mean, so very mean. Enjoy!