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
ADDITIONAL READING » CLASSICAL GREECE
by Forde, Steven
Brilliant scholarly dissertation on the mind-set of Alcibiades and the politics of imperialism in ancient Athens. You’ve gotta be a real aficionado to find this book (try your local college library) and get through it. But it will reward the serious reader. I borrowed all kinds of goodies from Forde for Tides of War.
by Morrison, Coates, and Rankov
Triremes were the famous ancient warships with three banks of oars. The problem: no one of the past 1500 years knew how the old guys did it. All design and engineering has been lost. The authors of this book play detective, scouring ancient texts, coins, carvings, and using their own imaginations. They figure it out, then build a trireme of their own. It works! Fascinating.
by Xenophon (Loeb Library, two volumes, translated by Walter Miller)
Though this book purports to narrate the upbringing and conquests of the great Persian king, in truth the society Xenophon describes is that of Sparta (no outsider knew it better than he), complete with “peers,” good manners at the dinner table, and why a true warrior never urinates on campaign (he should have eliminated excess water entirely by sweating).
by Herodotus (translated by Aubrey de Selincourt)
This is the book “The English Patient” was carrying. Funny, personal, and very entertaining, this book recounts the history of the clashes between Greeks and Persians, out of which arose the modern world. The battle of Thermopylae is in here—and Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea—plus dozens of zany, fascinating flashes into ancient life.
by Thucydides (translated by Rex Warner)
Tough sledding because of the dense but absolutely brilliant prose. May be the greatest book on war and human nature ever written. Timeless.
by Houston, Paul
My friend Paul Houston, in England, put together Sparta World, a work-in-progress website for Spartaphiles and aficionados of all things Spartans. The site is interesting in and of itself (and constantly evolving) and also a great jumping-off point and clearinghouse for re-enactor groups, hoplite fighters, artists, writers, and all other contemporary upholders of the Lakedaemonian tradition and ethos—and just for the fun of it. Paul invites all interested groups and individuals to contact him, link to the site, and network with their “peers.”
by Thucydides (edited by Robert B. Strassler)
A different but also excellent translation—but this one comes with maps, dozens and dozens, down to postage-stamp sizes, on almost every page. They help.
by Plato (translated by Hugh Tredennick)
Okay, okay . . . Two works by Plato . . . Translated by Hugh Tredennick, The Last Days compiles four dialogues into an organic whole narrating the trial, conviction, and death by hemlock of Socrates. Deep stuff on the subject of dying.
by Plutarch (translated by Richard J.A. Talbert)
The best one-book introduction to Sparta and Spartan thought. Several of Plutarch’s Lives of famous Spartans, plus Sayings of the Spartans and Sayings of the Spartan Women. Start here.
by Xenophon (translated by Rex Warner)
Ten thousand Greek mercenaries follow Cyrus the Younger’s three months’ march into the wilds of Persia, then lose the battle they came to fight. Xenophon was there as a young officer. His tale of the Greeks’ long and harrowing retreat against the hordes determined to obliterate them is justifiably immortal. Hollywood’s The Warriors, about a street gang from Brooklyn, was cleverly knocked off from this.
Easiest to read of all “the sources.” Short bios, packed with anecdotes and wisdom, of every great man of the Classical era. Plutarch wrote them in pairs, juxtaposing Caesar to Alexander, Alcibiades to Coriolanus, that sort of thing. My faves: Lycurgus, Solon, Themistocles, Alcibiades, Alexander.
This Penquin paperback assembles the lives of all the major players in Athens’ rise and fall—Theseus, Solon, Themistocles, Cimon, Pericles, Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lysander. A brilliant editorial concept, The Last Days can be pretty scary when you read-in the parallels to the contemporary United States.
by Lazenby, J.F.
Another hard-to-track-down work (try the Reference Librarian) that may lack the readable touch, but is crammed with great esoteric stuff like what the Spartans called a platoon leader [an enomotarch.] Only for true Sparta fanatics.
by Cartledge, Paul
Chairman of the Classics faculty at Cambridge, Cartledge is the expert, from whom I have also borrowed major tonnage. Here he’s not writing an exhaustive, all-inclusive tome, but hitting the high spots with great depth, if you know what I mean.
by Plato (translated by Walter Hamilton)
Hard to pick only one work from this great writer, thinker, and wrestler (Plato was his nickname, meaning “broad-shouldered”) and protégé of Socrates, but this is it. A night of gentlemen’s conversation, drunk and sober, at Athens in its glory days, highlighted by soliloquies “in praise of Love” by Aristophanes, Alcibiades, Agathon, and Socrates. Truman Capote wishes he threw a party like this.
by Carey, Christopher
Still extant are the actual lawyer’s arguments from a number of famous ancient cases. Trust me, Johnny Cochrane had nothing on these slick Athenian legal eagles.