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Monday, December 9, 2019

The Struggle is Real: Make Your Protagonist Suffer for Success!

Lately I've been thinking about stories where the protagonist doesn't really struggle. You don't see this in published works very much, but it crops up in unpublished fiction from time to time.

Sure, these stories may have conflict, maybe even tension. And so the writer might even think that the story does have struggle in it. But it doesn't have real struggle. Instead, conflicts are resolved with little to no suffering or sacrifice from the protagonist.

Heck, maybe even the conflict isn't resolved the first or second time, and yet, the story still lacks the struggle. That can happen.

Say you have a conflict that your character is trying to resolve, and he tries to resolve it three different ways, and the third way works--that doesn't necessarily mean he really struggled. It might only mean he only tried three different things.

But struggle is real.

Even people who are good people, with good successful lives, have struggles. Earlier this year, we had to put down our beloved family dog. She was sixteen. Maggie was one of the best, kindest dogs I ever met. She didn't do anything wrong. We gave her a good life. But guess what? She still struggled.

Rich people struggle. Famous people struggle. Loved people struggle. We sometimes perceive that if we just obtain X, we won't have to suffer and sacrifice and struggle, but the reality is, even good things can have their own negative problems attached to them. For example, I once heard a child of a rich and famous celebrity say he struggled making friends, because a lot of people wanted to pretend to be his friend to get to his dad. I'm not saying that some people don't suffer worse, they do; but everyone suffers.

Mozart struggled composing his next great symphony, despite being a master. Jesus Christ struggled at the end of his mortal ministry, despite being perfect (whether or not you believe it was true, it's still part of the story told). Lin-Manuel Miranda struggled to be taken seriously when working on Hamilton. Even if we become successful business owners, we have to deal with pressure and make continued sacrifices.

Sorry to tell you that even highly successful people like Mozart struggle.

So when I read a story where a protagonist doesn't struggle, I can't help but think, life just isn't like that. It's not realistic. Now, I'm not saying everything is doom and gloom all the time. But guys, even when I'm pursuing something I love more than anything (writing), it's still hard! There are negative consequences to positive actions. It's just the way life works. Everything, and I mean everything, is a give and take. Problems and obstacles never go away.

And having a good life and being a good person does take work and effort. It doesn't just happen. You have to make it happen. And that requires sacrifice.

And yet, even with all this stated, there will be some writers who don't want to make their characters struggle. They enjoy the characters and just want to write a nice story.

Look, I'm not saying you need to smother them by overwhelming them. But in order for them to learn and grow, or to illustrate the theme, you need to have them struggle in something.

Don't forget the power of contrasting in storytelling.

The greater the struggle.

The more powerful the reward.

It's often the contrast that makes stories meaningful, whether that's a Christmas Hallmark movie where the protagonist is struggling with a choice between a big city job and small town love, or Frodo Baggins near Mount Doom struggling with the weight of the entire world on his shoulders (and darkness within). If your character isn't struggling with something, then overcoming problems won't feel as earned. The story's climax and falling action will never be fully satisfying.

Sometimes writers are afraid to give their protagonists hard things. They just don't want to take the character there. Or they just want to show how wonderful and amazing this character is. That this character is just that good.

But it's not the innocent, inexperienced person that is most beautiful and amazing. It's the person who can still be good despite life's hardships, or, perhaps, because of them. Those are the kind of people we want to root for (generally speaking of course).

Not people who have it so easy, that they never suffer--that's not real life. The real world is unfair.

Sometimes we don't layer on the struggle because we are afraid of rendering it--maybe we are afraid we can't render it. Or maybe we just don't want to.

With writing, if that is our reason for not doing something, then we are going to have problems. You need to learn to render it.

Even if your character is a good person doing good things with good outcomes, ask yourself: What are some of the negative consequences they will have to face for doing X?  What personal sacrifices do they have to make to accomplish whatever good thing they want to do?

If you look at famous story structures, they almost always speak to the protagonist's struggle. And in many stories, this struggle will reach its most intense moment at plot point two, when it seems everything is lost . . . until the protagonist makes the biggest sacrifice yet. From there, the protagonist will be tested yet again during the climax, to prove they have fully overcome the difficulty.

Everything costs something.

For an effective story, make sure your protagonist is struggling for success.


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