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Monday, October 12, 2020

Picking the Right Pain for Your Protagonist

Let's be honest, pain is a key component of storytelling. If you want to tell a good story, at one point or another, a character will be in pain, and often the most important character to experience pain is the protagonist. But not all pain is the same. You have, what I like to think of, as "passive pain" and "cost pain."

Passive pain is hurt or hardship that just happens to the character. It might be having their parents die in a car crash or a bully who just hates them or a physical ailment they were born with. Passive pain is usually introduced at the starting of the story, during the setup. This also makes the character more sympathetic. We feel for them because of the situation they are in, and hey, life isn't fair for anyone.

But beyond the setup, passive pain needs to take somewhat of a backseat. It's only interesting for so long, and then it can become boring or even annoying. We all have random crap we have to deal with; it's part of life. And if the story just focuses and reiterates what pains happen to the protagonist, it's usually not very engaging for very long.

It's much more interesting, and more intense, when the pain becomes a cost for the protagonist on his or her journey. Having loved ones die randomly is one thing. Having them die as a cost to reaching a goal is way different. This is because it has a sense of cause and effect, which is what storytelling is all about.

If the protagonist doesn't struggle for success, the problem isn't actually that difficult, and the victory doesn't feel "earned." And in a way, it doesn't feel worthy of being a story. Most stories are about overcoming--whether that's overcoming something inside or externally or both (or overcoming a type of death).

Once the setup is done, there should be more "cost pain" than "passive pain," generally speaking. Sometimes, this may be obvious cause and effect--in a rush to win a significant cooking contest, your protagonist burns her hand. She wouldn't have burned her hand if she hadn't needed to plate her food before the timer ran out, which would disqualify her from the contest. Other times, there is a connection, but it's more indirect. Since she wins the cash prize of the cooking contest, her neighbor (who was also competing) now can't afford to take his young daughter on a trip this summer. The neighbor, who was always friendly, may now be rude to her, maybe even badmouthing her to other neighbors, which then affects how her neighborhood sees her, which makes her dog walks more difficult . . .

Passive pain is just stuff that happens. We feel sorry, but it's out of our control, and we bear no responsibility. Cost pain is much more significant--it's in our control or at least within our influence--if only we just made different decisions! Took X, Y, or Z action instead! This means it's also more likely to haunt our hero, which will make them more sympathetic to the audience.

Every goal has a cost. Usually the bigger the goal, the greater the cost. The bigger the cost, the greater the victory. It's the contrast that creates great power. An easy victory isn't that satisfying.

This isn't to say you can never have passive pains beyond the setup, or that you can never have cost pains in the opening--it's just to say that the cost pain is more effective and therefore should be more present and utilized through the story. Try to avoid writing stories where all the pain the protagonist experiences is from stuff that just "happens" to him or her--passive pain.

Even the story of Job is actually about cost pain. Sure, on the surface, it may seem like a passive pain story--because all these terrible things are happening to him. But in reality, all of those things are the cost for remaining faithful to God (even if you are angry or unhappy about it like he was at times). It's the cost of trying to retain one's beliefs.

Cost Pain > Passive Pain

Now go forth and consider what pain this journey costs your protagonist. 


I've recently added another editing service to my offerings: manuscript evaluation. This is similar to my content editing, but lighter. Basically, I read right through the manuscript and write up an editorial letter where I talk about how the manuscript can be taken to the next level or how the writer can improve, in general. I've done this as a "slimmer" version of my content editing in the past, but haven't advertised this approach lately because I personally think most manuscripts deserve a deeper edit. However, I understand that many people (especially now thanks to covid) are on a tighter budget. This approach is faster and therefore cheaper (but again, not as detailed). For now, I intend to have it listed only temporarily. For everything about my editing services, visit FawkesEditing.com.


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