I’m sure you’ve heard of the concept that you should throw rocks at your characters, but what sort of rocks? How badly should you hurt them? Can you ever do too much damage? What if the idea of destroying your hero’s life makes you nauseous and guilty?
First, let’s look at why it’s important to put characters, especially protagonists, through pain. If you think about it, most people read fiction for escapism, so don’t most of us want to escape uncomfortable and hurtful circumstances? Wouldn’t we want to avoid reading about heartache?
The simple truth is that happy people are boring in fiction. There’s something within our human makeup that, for all we want happiness, is captivated by struggle, conflict, and the journey. Perhaps its that part of us that deep down knows that if we had to struggle and fight for something, its value to us becomes much greater and we feel more satisfied upon achieving it. Plus, there’s also a part of us that feels relief that it isn’t us who suffers, but someone else. And then, there’s that deeply bred part that appreciates catharsis and the joy of seeing someone rise up against all odds and become something better. Isn’t there comfort in the idea that there’s a point to the pain, that something good comes from suffering and injustice?
Whatever the reasons we enjoy seeing characters struggle, conflict and hardship are essential parts of fiction. They create tension, and that tension propels a reader through a story. It gets readers emotionally invested, and hopefully at the end when they reach the satisfying conclusion, they’ve enjoyed the journey well enough to insist all their friends buy your book.
Further, content characters have little motivation to change anything in the story. They don’t act. They don’t make daring decisions that wind readers up with anticipation. They’re prone to being static, and that makes for a boring story too.
So now that we see the reasons characters need to suffer, let’s look at the how? Some of this depends on genre. Certain genres, like romance and humor, are less tolerant of extreme suffering than other genres such as speculative fiction, some contemporary, and historical. When you get into sub-genres, it gets even more complicated. Each reader comes to the reading experience with different tolerances and expectations regarding how much pain an author puts the protagonist through. Naturally, the best way to understand the threshold is to read in the genre you’re interested in writing in. Pay attention to how readers of that genre talk about the books and what’s popular. And understand that, while there are exceptions to every rule, an awareness of the pain threshold of your genre is still important.
From my own experience, I tend to enjoy seeing characters suffer a lot. I like to see people rise to greatness despite the most harrowing circumstances. I relish the opportunity to explore human experience through fiction. This is a big part of why I’m not well suited to primarily writing romance, though I have tried it. Being aware of your own preferences can help you narrow down what genres might be a good fit for you.
Now that you’ve figured out the size and frequency of the rocks to throw--pebbles, boulders, or asteroids--how do you go about it? How do you make it personal, believable, and satisfying to readers?
Start by figuring out what is most important to your characters. What motivates them? What do they fear? What do they secretly hope for deep down? What do they never want to experience? Dig deeply, uncovering layer by layer until you find out things about them that you never knew. When that happens, you have the sorts of struggle to put them through. Make your characters face their fears. Take away what matters most to them. If they have an advantage, find a way or time to remove it. Dangle their dreams before their eyes, then yank them away.
Then ask yourself two questions. First, what events and pressures would force my character to grow and change? Put him through such struggles. And finally, what would push this character to do, say, and think things he never thought himself possible of doing, saying, and thinking? When you do this, you force your character to push through personal boundaries, reveal deeper layers to the reader, and provide a more dynamic story. All the while, of course, keep in mind your genre’s tolerances.
But what if you’re uncomfortable about the idea of hurting your characters? As someone who personally feels awful if I create offense or hurt someone’s feelings in real life, you might think that I’d cringe at the idea of making my characters suffer. In actuality, I love it. So you might surprise yourself if you give it a try. Besides, another way to look at this is that, by making your characters suffer, you increase the value of their eventual happiness and victory. You give them more opportunities to show what an incredible person they are. You can show that, even through hardship, people can make things better. And if nothing else, it’s your story. Give it a try and build slowly if you need to. You can always revise or start again.