By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 6, 2016
We finished up last week with the idea that our protagonist’s suffering should not be arbitrary or capricious but on-theme.
In other words, if Jay Gatsby suffers agonies of rejection by both Daisy and the social class she represents, that suffering is because Gatsby has bought-in so totally to that materialistic, acquisitional (and very American) fantasy himself. If he weren’t so fanatically pursuing the dream represented by the green light on the end of Daisy’s dock, he wouldn’t be suffering so much. And he wouldn’t ultimately be destroyed.
The protagonist embodies the theme. (A case could be made, I know, that Jay Gatsby is not the protagonist of The Great Gatsby, but let’s put that aside for the moment for the sake of argument.)
What, then, about the villain? If the villain represents the counter-theme, how does he or she figure into the hero’s suffering?
The villain should be the cause and generator of the hero’s suffering.
Darth Vader in the first three Star Wars movies serves that function (he and the Emperor).
Noah Cross does the same in Chinatown, as does the Alien in Alien, the Predator in Predator, the shark in Jaws.
I was working on the first Steven Seagal movie, Above the Law, when one of the Lethal Weapon films (I forget which one) came out. In it was a scene where Mel Gibson was tortured by the villain. Steven Seagal saw the movie and came in the next day on fire. “Write me a torture scene!”
I remember thinking at the time, “That is the dumbest, most derivative idea I’ve ever heard.” But of course Steve was right. That type of scene is a convention of the thriller genre, what Shawn calls the “Hero at the Mercy of the Villain” scene. We wrote it for Steve and it played like gangbusters.
The villain should be the source of the hero’s suffering.
But what if the villain is internal? What if the antagonist exists only inside the hero’s head?
The villain in The Great Gatsby isn’t Tom Buchanan, brutish and “hulking” as he may be. (I actually like the character of Tom Buchanan; I have a lot of sympathy for him.)
The villain is reality.
The villain is The Way Life Really Works.
“But,” says Nick Carraway to Gatsby, “you can’t recreate the past.”
“Why, of course you can, old sport!”
Let me revise that statement from four lines ago. The villain is Gatsby’s self-delusion, his dream of recapturing a romantic moment and making it live again permanently. A moment, we might add to make it even worse, that was never real, except in Gatsby’s mind, even in the moment it was happening.
Which brings us to another, deeper aspect of the hero’s suffering.
If that suffering must be on-theme, then the more profound and universal the theme, the greater the emotional impact on the reader.
What makes Gatsby’s downfall so resonant (it must be, because the book is still being taught in English classes ninety years after its publication) is that Gatsby’s suffering is so American. His dream is the American dream. You’ve believed it. I’ve believed it. We’ve all operated under its spell our whole lives.
Scott Fitzgerald chased that dream as passionately as any writer ever, and it killed him just as brutally as it killed Gatsby.
That dream is the villain of The Great Gatsby.
It’s a powerful exercise for us as writers to ask ourselves these questions:
- Is my hero suffering enough?
- What is the source of my hero’s suffering?
- Is that suffering on-theme?
- What the heck is my theme?
- Is my theme big enough? (And the corollary: Does my hero’s suffering resonate powerfully enough with the reader?)
The villain in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is mindless, bullheaded nationalism. This is embodied by the boys’ teacher, Kantorek. All the suffering of the book’s hero Paul Baumer and his friends derives from that notion and, literally, from Kantorek, who as its passionate proponent urges them to march off to war in the first place.
That’s why the story works so powerfully.
The hero must suffer.
The suffering must be on-theme.
The bigger and more powerful the theme, the greater the suffering—and the greater the emotional impact on the reader.
We’ll talk next week about why suffering is so important in a book or a movie.