By Steven Pressfield
Published: April 26, 2017
[Today’s post is a revised and updated version of a favorite of mine that ran earlier in the blog’s cycle. It’s #1 in a new series starting today.]
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?” the director asked when they got together. “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 momentarily taken aback. No actor, he said, had ever asked him that question. “Why do ask that, Elvis?”
“I’ve been watching the movies of James Dean and Marlon Brando, and I notice that they never smile. I don’t wanna smile either.”
Have you ever noticed how the most emotionally involving books and movies all have heroes that go through hell? Cool Hand Luke, The Grapes of Wrath, the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Mildred in Mildred Pierce, Sethe in Beloved, even Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.
One of the most powerful books I’ve ever read 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. You read it and you’re actually feeling sorry for the Nazis.
As writers, you and I may sometimes be tempted to go easy on our protagonists. After all, we like them. We’re rooting for them. They’re our heroes. Sometimes they’re even thinly-veiled versions of ourselves.
But giving our heroes a break is the worst thing we can do.
Instead, pour on the misery. Afflict them like 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 emotionally 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 her 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. Tom Hanks for Philadelphia. Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything.
Luke Skywalker suffers.
Rocket Raccoon suffers.
Even James Bond suffers.
The trick for us writers is knowing how to make our heroes suffer.
In the upcoming posts we’ll examine the storytelling principles that apply to this precept.
The hero’s suffering must be on-theme.
Posted in Writing Wednesdays
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Autumn, 1942. Hitler's legions have swept across Europe; France has fallen; Churchill and the English are isolated on their island. In North Africa, Rommel and his Panzers have routed the British Eighth Army and stand poised to overrun Egypt, Suez, and the oilfields of the Middle East. With the outcome of the war hanging in the balance, the British hatch a desperate plan -- send a small, highly mobile, and heavily armed force behind German lines to strike the blow that will stop the Afrika Korps in its tracks.
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I have always been a soldier. I have no other life So begins Alexander's extraordinary confession on the eve of his greatest crisis of leadership. By turns heroic and calculating, compassionate and utterly merciless, Alexander recounts with a warrior's unflinching eye for detail the blood, the terror, and the tactics of his greatest battlefield victories. Whether surviving his father's brutal assassination, presiding over a massacre, or weeping at the death of a beloved comrade-in-arms, Alexander never denies the hard realities of the code by which he lives: the virtues of war. But as much as he was feared by his enemies, he was loved and revered by his friends, his generals, and the men who followed him into battle. Often outnumbered, never outfought, Alexander conquered every enemy the world stood against him — but the one he never saw coming....
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If history is the biography of extraordinary men, the life of Alcibiades (451-404 B.C.) comprises an indispensable chapter in the chronicle of the Western world. Kinsman of Pericles, protégé of Socrates, Alcibiades was acknowledged the most brilliant and charismatic personality of his day. Plutarch, Plato, and Thucydides have all immortalized him. As the pride of Achilles drove the course of the Trojan War, so Alcibiades' will and ambition set their stamp upon the Peloponnesian War--the twenty-seven-year civil conflagration between the Athenian empire and Sparta and the Peloponnesian league.
In 480 B.C., an invading Persian army, two-million strong, came to the mountain pass of Thermopylae in eastern Greece. Led by King Xerxes, they were met by the finest three hundred Spartan warriors where the rocky confines were so narrow that the Persian multitudes and their cavalry would be at least partially neutralized. Here, the Greek loyalists hoped, the elite force could hold off, at least for a short while, the invading millions.
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In the Depression year of 1931, on the golf links at Krewe Island off Savannah's windswept shore, two legends of the game, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, meet for a mesmerizing thirty-six-hole showdown. Another golfer will also compete--a troubled local war hero, once a champion, who comes with his mentor and caddie, the mysterious Bagger Vance. Sage and charismatic, it is Vance who will ultimately guide the match, for he holds the secret of the Authentic Swing. And he alone can show his protégé the way back to glory.