Written by JJ Barnes
When you write a story where characters suffer, your story will be stronger and more intense.
When you start your story, you’re following your Protagonist on a journey to try and get something they want. This is the story conflict. It launches at the inciting incident and resolves at the climax. But between the beginning and the end is the middle, and the conflict needs to be active the entire time.
I’ll be exploring how making your characters suffer is important for keeping the conflict active, keeping your story entertaining, and giving your character an interesting arc.
To have active conflict in your story, your Protagonist and Antagonist can’t have what they want. If your characters are satisfied, and therefore have nothing they want, your audience won’t want anything either. If nobody wants anything there’s no point reading your story because nothing is going on.
Active conflict is when the character you’re following wants something and is working to get it. Sometimes this will be in a subtle way, having conversations with people and hoping to find something out. Other times it’ll be more determined, they are actively in pursuit and fighting for their goal. But at all points this conflict needs to be active. They want something they don’t have, and they want to try and get it.
If your character finds it easy to get what they want there’s no story. From the moment they decide they want something you have to keep putting obstacles in their way. Every step they make, block it. Make it hard, make them work. Make your characters suffer. If they work for their goal, suffer for their goal, the conflict is active and your story is entertaining.
Why Making Characters Suffer Is Entertaining
An entertaining story isn’t entertaining for your character, it’s not about them having fun, it’s entertaining for your audience. For your audience to be entertained, your Protagonist needs to be busy.
If your Protagonist isn’t doing very much, your story will be boring. Why ride along with a character who’s just ambling about, observing things, but being passive and dull? Your audience is there for a journey, so make that journey exciting. Watching characters suffer might not sound entertaining, but watching people overcome obstacles is. Watching characters fight for what they want keeps your story entertaining.
Even Light Stories Have Characters Suffer
Even stories which are ostensibly light and fun by nature need the Protagonist to suffer. The musical Grease is one of the most feel-good musicals of all time, and watched for the fun and light nature. But Sandy and Danny suffer the whole way through.
Sandy gets picked on, she gets mocked. She has her heart broken and is teased for it. She is made to feel like she’s not good enough and changes her entire appearance to try and be what she thinks other people need her to be to be accepted. Sandy’s solo, Hopelessly Devoted To You, is one of heartbreak.
Similarly, Danny is teased and caves to peer-pressure to give up the girl he loves. He fights against toxic masculinity and risks losing his friends, his support group, to be with Sandy. Danny’s song, Alone At The Drive-In, is also one of heartbreak.
Grease is a feel good musical we associate with being fun and entertaining, but the characters are made to suffer from the inciting incident, the moment they meet at school, to the climax.
Arcing Your Character
Your characters are the main appeal of your story. Your setting and plot can be truly fascinating, but if your audience finds the people you’re writing about boring then the whole story will feel boring.
Interesting characters will go on an arc. This means they start the story in one way and, because of events in your story, are changed and end it as somebody different. They are forced to grow and change, learn how to get what they want, and are shaped by your story. If your characters suffer, they will be changed by that experience.
People who don’t suffer have no need to change. If things come easily to your character and they don’t have to learn anything, they won’t be changed. They won’t improve themselves, they won’t experience emotions that connect us to them. We are shaped by our experiences and our pain to try and make sure we don’t suffer in the same way again. We learn through struggle.
How To Write A Character Arc
To write an interesting character arc throw challenges at them and force them to overcome them. Every time they over come one challenge, they are changed and improved as a person. So then you throw something else at them. Break their hearts and make them stronger. Crush their hopes, and make them find new ones.
We connect to characters through their emotions, so give them reason to have those emotions. We admire characters with tenacity and determination, so give them something to fight for.
If Characters Suffer They Are Human
The more humanity you can cram into your story, the more real it will be. Looking over your own life and the lives of your loved ones, very few of us have a life without pain. We all suffer and we all deal with outcome of that suffering every day.
Watching a character dealing with something painful and hard will make them feel human and keep your audiences invested. If we watch someone suffering and fighting through it, we are inspired and filled with hope. If your audience has hope, they will are enough to stick around to the end of your story to see that hope realised.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose
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