A writer friend recently confessed to me that she had all of these great protagonists, but had trouble coming up with things for them to do, and one of my favorite pieces of writerly advice popped vaguely to mind: YOU are the antagonist. If you don’t torture your protagonist, who will?
#20 – Torture Your Protagonist. It’s not enough for him to be stuck up a tree. You must throw rocks at him while he figures out how to get down. – Allen Guthrie, Hunting Down the Pleonasms.
I couldn’t recall the above quote at the time, so instead I told my writer friend that she should punch her characters in the stomach and see how they react. While this can certainly come in the form of a literal punch, the point is actually to take the character out of their comfort zone, to shake up their lives and see how they react. The punch is the catalyst that kick-starts the story, and the reaction/pre-action to the punch generates plot. By bullying our characters, we explore what we love about them by watching the way they cope with trauma.
The action hero that deflects every proverbial punch to the stomach has a hard time proving their courage and strength to the reader, they appear flat, lifeless, and uninteresting because it doesn’t take courage or strength to be invincible and infallible. The strong, courageous hero must be beaten to a pulp, crippled by fear, and then must show their courage and strength by rising out of that darkness to conquer it. The intellectual hero must be battered intellectually, the romantic hero must be thrashed romantically, and so on…
As writers we are creators, we create characters, we create worlds, but most importantly we create problems. Approaching writing from this angle immediately gives us a framework to work from: the question we have to ask ourselves is no longer “What’s my character doing today?” it’s, “What kind of trouble is my character going to get in today?” The way our characters respond to the trouble is what makes them interesting.
The image to the right depicts Luke in a pivotal moment of the Star Wars universe. Why? I think in general people appreciate the scene because it is an unexpected twist regarding Luke’s heritage. However, there’s a great deal more to the scene than just the heritage twist: The scene begins so optimistically with Luke confronting Vader, challenging him confidently after having trained with Yoda, and then takes a radical turn as we learn that Luke is in no way a match for Vader. It is a crushing moment of defeat for Luke as he loses his hand and lightsaber, and then learns that the monster before him is actually his father. Seeing Luke (a beacon of light, hope, and near invincibility) stripped of his shining perfection in a matter of minutes is heart wrenching. Seeing him learn, the hard way, that his training really was incomplete, is fulfilling on numerous levels, because it means he’s going to finish up and be a badass next time.
So be an asshole to your protagonists. Make them suffer, give them the shit end of the stick; because that’s life, and seeing the unique ways in which your characters respond to your abuse is what makes them unique and interesting.