“Why Do We Torture Our Heroes?
There are three big problems with a hapless victim as protagonist.
Problem #1: Repetitive Agonizing
Over-tortured, victimized characters tend to express their constant frustration. After all, the author has to give these poor sods something to say, and when a character with a life-threatening disease, whose true love recently dumped him just after his dog was run over by a car, falls off a cliff and into a gigantic waterfall after being chased by evil aliens … well, let’s just assume the first words out of his mouth after he hits the water will not be, “Wow! What a beautiful waterfall.” How many readers want to spend a whole book with a constantly anguished or angry protagonist? We all want someone to root for, not just feel sorry for.
Problem #2: Boredom
Being in a pickle is not inherently exciting. Giving a protagonist a ton of problems to worry about and suffer from does not automatically create conflict and tension. A guy sitting in solitary confinement in a prison cell has big trouble, but watching him pace the floor and mark the days off on the wall is not interesting. Or even tense (for the reader, at least). Why? He can’t solve his problem. All he can do is be miserable. And misery without conflict, action or interaction is kinda boring. (In case Papillon comes to mind as an exception, that was Henri Charriere’s memoir and, arguably, the exciting parts were the escapes, not the scenes where he spit out his rotting teeth in a filthy cell.)
Problem #3: Miraculous Victory
“The Perils of Pauline” told classic damsel-in-distress stories. Sending in some outside force to rescue the protagonist is one way to get him, or her, down from the tree. But if you’re not (intentionally) writing melodrama, you have to figure out a way to have your hero find his own way down from the tree. If you’ve beset your protagonist with continuously mounting (and unsolved) troubles through the whole book – your character is going to have to morph from hapless victim to unstoppable Superman in the last act to get out of the mess by himself. (Okay, Papillon is certainly a breathtaking example of this … but if it hadn’t been an autobiography, who would have believed it?)
So, what does the “up a tree” dictum really tell us to do? This is something we discussed at length in Whistler, and my own personal epiphany was about the purpose of giving your protagonist troubles. It’s not to make him a miserable, complaining victim. It’s to give him something heroic to do. To put him in action. Only by the protagonist’s reaction to his troubles can we get to know what he’s made of.
Ding … the lightbulb went on for me. Give your hero problems he actually can do something about. Then let him show his stuff. Do we really care about a hero who sits up in that tree kvetching and waiting for miracle? No, we want him to be visibly overcoming his fear of heights, planning his escape, throwing apples at the baying dogs below, weaving a rope out of twigs or something … anything! The tougher the problem, the bigger the hero. But if the protagonist is not well matched with the problems to be solved, the writer may have to cheat and resort to miracles or magic, and that could actually diminish the hero.”