By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 30, 2015
[Down to the last two days of our Black Irish Christmas Special—the 7-Book Megabundle for Writers. Keep a couple for yourself and spread the rest around to “worthy recipients.”]
There’s a story about Elvis:
He was about to make his first movie (“Love Me Tender”) and he was getting a little nervous. He phoned the director and asked to speak with him privately.
“What is it, Elvis? You look upset. Is there anything you want to ask me?”
“Yes,” said Elvis. “Am I gonna be asked to smile in this movie?”
The director was taken aback. No actor, he said, had ever asked him that question. “Why do ask that, Elvis?”
“I’ve been watching James Dean’s movies and Marlon Brando’s, and I notice they never smile. I don’t wanna smile either.”
Have you ever noticed how the most emotionally involving books and movies all have heroes whom the authors put through hell? Cool Hand Luke, The Grapes of Wrath, The Revenant. Mildred in Mildred Pierce, Sethe in Beloved, even Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.
One of my favorite books is The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer. It’s the true story of the German retreat before the Russians on the Eastern front in WWII. Talk about suffering. Yet when friends asked how I liked it, I replied, “I love it.” The more the heroes suffered, the more deeply their travail hooked me.
As writers, you and I may sometimes be tempted to go easy on our protagonists. After all, we like them. They’re our heroes. They may even be thinly-veiled versions of ourselves.
But giving our heroes a break is the most destructive thing we can do.
Instead, pour on the misery. Afflict them like God afflicted Job. Beat them up like Karl Malden did to Brando in One-Eye Jacks or Gene Hackman did to Clint Eastwood (not to mention Morgan Freeman) in Unforgiven. Torture them emtionally like Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven or Still Alice. Break their hearts like Meryl Streep in Out of Africa (or any, or all, of Ms. Streep’s other movies.)
Readers will love it.
Audiences will love it.
Think of your lead character as if he or she were an actor. Actors love to suffer. They win Oscars for it. Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything.
Luke Skywalker suffers.
Han Solo suffers.
Even James Bond suffers.
The trick to suffering inflicted on the hero, however, is it must be on-theme.
We can’t just piles agonies willy-nilly on our protagonists (though that will work too.) Their ordeal has to be focused. It must resonate with the story’s theme.
The theme in Out of Africa is personal possession. Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen is obsessed with owning what she loves, as her lover Robert Redford as Denys Finch Hatton teases her in the script by Kurt Luedtke:
My Kikuyu. My Limoges. My farm. It’s an awful lot to own, isn’t it?
In the end of course Karen loses everything including Finch Hatton. It works powerfully in the drama because her suffering is on-theme.
The theme in Cool Hand Luke is authority, specifically the authority of society imposed by force. The prison captain, played by Strother Martin, spells it out for the convicts on the road gang:
You run one time, you got yourself one set of chains. You run twice you got yourself two sets. You ain’t gonna need no third set, ’cause you gonna get your mind right.
Luke, played by Paul Newman, refuses to get his mind right. All his suffering comes directly from that. That’s what makes it so powerful. It is on-theme.
Cool Hand Luke is really the Christ story set in the early 50s in a Florida prison camp. The protagonist, as always, embodies the theme—the refusal to submit to earthly authority—and he, like Jesus, is crucified by the system.
We’ll explore this topic in greater depth next week.