Hurt the ones you love

The advice to hurt your characters is given so often to writers that I thought it was a cliche by now. In fact, I would have told you that things had swung too far the other way, with some writers relishing in inflicting every known form of pain and suffering on their poor protagonists.

But maybe everyone didn’t get the memo? A friend of mine recently asked me to read her manuscript, and while there was a lot that was good about it, it had one glaring flaw. Everything was too easy for the protagonist. There was a conflict, sort of, but it was all worked out with a nice heart-to-heart and some convenient self-awareness. No one got hurt, no one was mean or selfish, and absolutely no one antagonized. Despite the protag’s many endearing qualities, it was very hard to really root for her, because she never had a real obstacle to overcome.

I remember, some years ago, reading another manuscript with many of the same flaws. In both cases, I think that the authors were mislead by their choice of genre to think that they could write a story without struggle and without pain. One was an Edwardian romance, and the other a light contemporary comedy — both of these being genres that generally eschew the dark and gritty. But the lack of angst and torture does not mean that you get to ignore basic requirements for plot and conflict. Rather, the struggles and the difficulties that the protag faces have to be that much more significant to the character, and the struggles that the protag goes through have to be that much more difficult in order to make their goals seem worthwhile.

Wes Anderson is the master of this. In most of his movies, the characters are moved by solely personal goals, and little is at stake other than their individual aspirations. The tone is light and funny, even when pirates take over your boat, and the angst is comic rather than dark. But this doesn’t mean that Anderson is easy on his characters. On the contrary, he throws every kind of obstacle that you can imagine in their way, and often they don’t actually get what they want, even at the end of the story.

This is how you should make a light contemporary comedy. Not by toning down the conflicts, but by turning them up, making them more meaningful and more over-the-top, and having your protagonist treat them as deadly serious regardless of how absurd they are.

(As for me, I don’t have this problem. If anything, I err on the side of dark-and-gritty. Which has problems of its own…)

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3 Comments

  1. But what if the writer does not love the main character? But loathes the main character, and loves only the antagonists?

    Then is it fine to hurt the antagonists, and favour only the main character, simply because you hate it?

    Czech …. AAaaaaannnnNNNDDDDdddd Mate !

  2. You hit the nail on the head when you mention that when things are too easy, there’s really nothing to root for. I mean, really, what IS there to root for? The MC doesn’t have a struggle, nothing to overcome.

    Now, I’m a bit darker with mine. Not too dark but yeah, I have my MC deal with a few things so there’s something to root for, a reason to want to see the MC succeed or feel bad for them if they don’t.

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