Give your hero a hard time

“Be a sadist,” said Kurt Vonnegut. That’s number six on his list of eight creative writing 101 tips. He added, “No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

Vonnegut knew what he was talking about. He made awful things happen to Billy Pilgrim, his leading character in his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. It was not enough to send Pilgrim unprepared into the thick of World War II and have him captured by the enemy, Vonnegut then sends him into the worst firestorm of the war—Dresden in February 1945. And that was just the start of poor Pilgrim’s problems.

Vonnegut’s inspiration came from his own life. He’d been a prisoner of war held in a slaughterhouse in Dresden in February ‘45. Fortunately, it’s not essential to go through quite such a trauma to create great leading characters. There are far easier ways to give your hero a hard time.

For Robert Towne, who won an Oscar in 1974 for his screenplay Chinatown (remember what a rough time he gave Jack Nicholson’s character, Jake Gittes?), the best way to get tough on your hero is to ask: What are you afraid of? If you can discover your characters’ fears, then continually confront them with those fears, you’ll create memorable, engaging characters.

This might sound like every story should be a horror, but that’s not the case. In Chinatown, for example, Jake is obsessed with being a detective, to the point that he’s willing to work for free. His weakness is women, and he wants to protect them. His fear is that a(nother) woman will be harmed or even killed while he feels responsible for her. This fear and this need to protect leads him to misinterpret events and miss important clues, getting in the way of his obsession to be a good detective.

Fundamental fears

As the author of your story, you can of course simply assign your character a fear. But the best characters, the ones we remember, have personalities—and therefore fears—that are intrinsic to the story. They make sense in the story’s world. To take an extreme example: if the main character of your romance is afraid of snakes, it will only interrupt the story if you then drop that character into a pit of snakes every few chapters for no other purpose than to invoke some tension (except, maybe, if the love interest is a snake charmer).

Here then is one way to get to the depths of your characters’ fears.

Make a list of moments when your hero experiences difficulties, those times when they’re going to feel—even slightly—out of their depth, anything that might cause distress. Don’t think about it too much, just scribble down what comes to mind when you think of your character’s fears. Try to be specific, but keep it broad at the same time. Include any thoughts, feelings or memories your character may have at certain moments, any ticks or habits they might display in difficult situations.

For example, the main character in my romance story might be a young woman called Lynne Dubois. She gets nervous when she waits in line to order her morning coffee; she rehearses exactly what she’s going to say to the barista. She feels guilty when she remembers that she hasn’t called her mother for a few weeks; she postpones the call again rather than listen to her mother’s complaints. She feels anxious when she has to give a presentation at work; she can’t sleep the night before. She feels frustration and anger when she sees her neighbor who plays his music too loud at night; she’s careful what time she leaves home so she doesn’t meet him on the street.

Once you have a list with a few items, you can organize it with the most painful situations at the top of the list and work down to the least painful. Lynne’s list would look like this:

Anxious when she has to give a presentation; can’t sleep the night before

Guilty she hasn’t called her mother; postpones the call longer

Frustration and anger with her neighbor who plays loud music; avoids meeting him on the street

Nervous when waiting in line; rehearses what she’s going to say.

If … then

The next step is the most important. This is where you’ll get to the core of your hero’s fears. Take each item on the list and imagine this was no longer a problem for your character. How would that change the character’s life? Again, it’s useful if you try to be specific about how this character’s life would improve if these items on the list were no longer troubling them. It won’t help if you say: if my character isn’t angry any more, she’ll solve the crime! Try to keep the fear and the consequence closely related.

Work each item on the list into one of the following sentence structures:

If I wasn’t … then I would …

If … wasn’t a problem, then I would …

The sentences for the Lynne Dubois character, would look something like this:

If I wasn’t anxious before a presentation, then I would give a better presentation and gain recognition from my boss and my coworkers.

If guilt wasn’t a problem, then I would call my mother more often and have a closer relationship with her.

If frustration and anger wasn’t a problem, I would talk to my neighbor to solve the problem and we could be better neighbors.

If I wasn’t nervous about ordering my coffee, then I would relax and talk with the other people in the line.

From this, it’s already clear that relationships are important to Lynne, but she finds it difficult to establish new relationships and maintain those that are important to her. To make the story of her romance more interesting and to explore the ways in which these fears affect Lynne, I’d be tempted—if I was to follow Vonnegut’s advice—to make her love interest the most difficult person for her to get to know.

Maybe I’d make it a new boss who, coincidentally, was often in the same line at the coffee shop. He’s just moved to the same neighborhood, and has a perfect relationship with his perfectly understanding mother. He might also love loud music. (Although, on reflection, Lynne—and perhaps most people—might hate this person).

If I did go with this character, I’d have to get all sadistic on him too and make Lynne the most difficult person for him to get know. Maybe this character goes into a wild panic if his lover doesn’t call for a few days.

Clearly this romance needs more work, and your characters’ fears might not be as immediately obvious as in this example, but I hope you get the idea. Imagine difficult situations for your characters, find out what are the most painful, then—as far as the story allows—push those characters into places where they will be confronted by their fears. Maybe they work through those fears to have a happy ending. Maybe not. That’s up to you.

A version of this article was first published on 23 February 2018 as part of Jim’s regular column on WriterUnboxed.

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