Sunday, March 24, 2013

Unhappy Characters = Happy Readers

For real people nothing beats a sunny stretch, unexpected windfall, or confirmation of love, friendship, and family ties. So it’s an odd irony that although that good news sells self-help and children’s books, it sells few novels. Fiction readers want good news only at the end. Because the word “novel” is spelled “t-r-o-u-b-l-e.”

Why would this be? For a start, writing happiness isn’t easy. Too often it sounds sappy, silly, clichéd, or unbelievable. Plus it simply doesn’t captivate. The protagonist and his girlfriend are having a really nice day. Isn’t that nice. I think I’ll hit the gym now, though. Working up a sweat would be more fun.

But neither of those are the main reason. Aristotle articulated the real one in the “Poetics,” where he observed that audiences are emotionally reborn (catharsis) by watching the downfall due to the arrogance (hubris) of a noble hero.

Our heroes have changed radically, as have our versions of downfall and arrogance. But the impetus for story stays the same. Today’s venue is more often the page than the stage, but we still want to watch the guy or gal suffer through all that trouble and learn from it.

Trouble drives story. People don’t change unless forced to, and painful as it is, the real lessons come from dreadful circumstances. These not only impose choice and commitment but elicit inner resources that might surprise even the protagonist.

Here’s how to structure that:

  • Plunge your protagonist into trouble.
  • Give your protagonist a fatal flaw.
  • Give your protagonist a concealed yet powerful asset.
  • Make the trouble worse and worse.
  • Let every action, choice, or decision produce a visible result.
  • Corner your protagonist until it looks hopeless: Love, fame, joy, forgiveness all beyond reach.

Create a climactic moment that teaches the protagonist the one lesson that partially undoes all the wrong. Nothing will ever be the same. The past can’t be repaired; the mistakes remain on the books. But where there’s progress, there’s hope of happiness.

Your novel probably has a happy ending, which is probably good, since that’s what readers usually want. Just provide the happy pleasure of watching the troubled protagonist learn the lesson, overcome the flaw, and imagine sunny skies and moonlit strolls down the beach.

Tip: Trouble teaches your protagonist where and how to find happiness.

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