Authors are notorious for inflicting pain upon their characters. In our defense, how else would we propel the plot if our characters didn’t brave the gauntlet?
But if misfortune only serves to move the plot, we’re missing the big picture. Tragedy for the sake of tragedy is cliché. If we fail to add emotional meaning to the trash our characters go through, the pain is cheapened. It becomes a ploy to gain sympathy, but readers will eventually get tired of conflict that has no bearing on the character. A narrative doesn’t change a person’s mind because characters are constantly in danger, nor does pain forever capture readers’ hearts. Tragedy is important, not because it drives the story, but because it transforms characters.
Rough Situations Reveal a Person’s True Self
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s mystery, A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock’s actions provide a perfect reason why writers should be cruel to their characters. When he convinced Irene Adler that her house was on fire, she hurried to retrieve the incriminating photographs she’d hidden. He later explains to Watson why his scheme worked: “When a woman thinks that her house is on fire, her instinct is at once to rush to the thing which she values most.”
Under pressure, a character’s mask shatters and his inner self leaks out. Not only do his desires and worldview become visible, but he begins to doubt his core beliefs. His answers to those nagging questions steer his forward motion.
In Captain America: Civil War, Steve Rogers is challenged to forfeit his freedom by signing the Sokovia Accords after a disaster damages the Avengers’ reputation. Both the government and his friends ask him to compromise, but he refuses, causing the Avengers to splinter. This shows viewers that Steve won’t abandon his convictions even when the consequences hurt.
T’Challa, on the other hand, copes with the suffering he experiences in the film by trying to kill the man he assumes is responsible. But when he sees Tony seeking vengeance in response to his own angst, he decides to change.
Steve’s and T’Challa’s struggles triggered their actions and developed them as characters. To create arcs like theirs, we need to be intentional about how we use our characters’ pain.
1. Make Pain Meaningful
Every conflict in our stories needs to count. We can’t throw in a fight or death for shock value without letting it affect the character. That would lessen the impact of the hardship he’s endured.
For instance, say a side character needs eliminated because, if he continues to exist, he’ll solve the protagonist’s problems. Instead of chalking up his death to the casualties of war, we should consider how we can tie his demise into the lesson the protagonist must ultimately learn.
Does he need to become a confident leader to survive his final battle with the antagonist? Maybe his friend died because he hesitated to take responsibility, which forces him to confront and conquer a weakness that has burdened him with regrets.
This doesn’t mean we can’t include adversity to build realism. We don’t have to relate every bump in the road to the protagonist’s main arc. But if we’re deliberate about how we depict his troubled times, we can accomplish more with our scenes than the suspension of disbelief.
2. Make Characters Learn from Consequences
In the example above, the character’s inaction resulted in the loss of his friend. Now we need to ensure that he acknowledges the repercussions and pushes past them. Recognizing his flaws is a central part of the process, but he must also have an opportunity to mature.
Another side character could guide his growth, or maybe the message won’t sink in until he’s faced more ordeals. However we decide to open the character’s eyes, he must understand that he needs to change. Otherwise, the event will be as pointless as a conflict that’s irrelevant to his arc.
3. Give Characters a Chance to Grow Stronger
Though mistakes shape characters into who they’re destined to become, if the protagonist is the instigator of every catastrophe, that paints a false representation of reality. Random mishaps can serve a purpose too. How a character handles a situation that’s beyond his control can help him grow as much as a fiasco he caused.
Perhaps our character is afraid of loving others, and the slaughter of a fellow soldier piles another brick onto the mound of reasons why he shouldn’t form relationships. So he relies on his own strength until he fails under the strain and realizes that he must accept both love and loss to truly live.
4. Teach Characters Through Others’ Actions
Tragedy isn’t limited to the protagonist’s personal arc. The trials that side characters undergo can also reroute him.
Remember T’Challa? The consequences of his vengeful actions were already weighing him down, but the final turning point happened when he watched Tony attack Steve and Bucky. He was horrified and didn’t want to meet the same end. Even though he was a secondary character, the way he developed can be applied to any protagonist.
The pain that side characters experience should also influence who they are at the story’s beginning and who they become at the end. We don’t need to flesh out every side character, but the ones who play a prominent role should have pasts that color their choices and behavior.
Tragic Stories Mirror Reality
Great authors may be cruel, but they torture their characters in an effort to portray the dark times we’ve all overcome. When we craft stories about characters who rise above destruction and heartache, we reflect a world in which God has given us the ability to turn pain into beauty.
The next time you think about weaving tragedy into your story, remember that its function is twofold: to propel the adventure, and to create an unforgettable inner journey for the protagonist.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood. You can hang out with her on her quirky blog and Instagram.