Warning: this post is for writers (and readers) who believe in suffering. They may not like it in their own lives. They may hate and revile it. They may resent its unwelcome but inevitable intrusion as they try to complete everything on their crazy-long to-do list; put in huge numbers of hours at work to make ends meet; or just get the children organized and reasonably clean and nourished and outside to play with friends so they can collapse on couch for just five minutes--gawd!! But they know, from personal experience and without a doubt, that suffering is what makes us appreciate what's real and important and good in life. Especially if the suffering is major, like losing a loved one or facing a potentially terminal situation yourself. It kind of sucks, but there you go.
In classic dramatic fiction, the hero or heroine of our story must suffer on the page, or the story is not compelling. Suffering is central to the protagonist's growth. We are told by writing teachers to make things continually worse for our protagonist from the get-go—worse and worse and WORSE—until, in the darkness, a pinlight of hope/possibility appears far in the distance. This happens somewhere around 3/4 through the manuscript, and the protagonist knows what she has to do. She plunges forward into the dark and aims herself toward the light, live or die. There will be peril along the way and every reason to believe she may have made the wrong decision.
The type of drama and suffering (physical, psychological, emotional, functional) can vary within or by genre. It's there not only to create powerful tension that keeps readers turning those pages, but to make the protagonist figure out what action to take:
"The deeper my crisis, the clearer my choices"
Andrew Boyd, Daily Afflictions
As it happens, I was reading Andrew Boyd's book as a way to avoid my own work. I can't easily describe this little book. I bought it for moments of inertia when I needed a good, dark, ironic laugh. (If you don't have cynicism and irony smothering your soul now and then, you may not love Boyd's book, but if you're a writer, I think I'm talkin' to you.) The book offers a series of bite-sized but very chewy, and frequently hilarious, pieces of reflection on life and meaning. It's like daily affirmations, only it's afflictions.
But there's this amazing section in the introduction to the book that is not such a reflection. It is the telling of a near-mythical experience—a perfect example of the classic, impactful suffering of the hero/heroine. It's written about Boyd's thinly-veiled alter ego, Brother Void, who, we are told, is a mystic who earned his mystic stripes through suffering mightily. Brother Void has experienced personal tragedy, and been through "heartbreak, failure, confusion, and despair."(p. xx) But he's fully rounded, because he's also experienced "joy and victory." (ibid.) According to Boyd, these life experiences are what led Brother Void to write the book's "harsh little bits of wisdom."(p. xx)
Well, while the bits are fun, what I want to share with you is that section that is the vignette on what suffering does for our hero.
So here is Boyd, talking about the mystic, Brother Void's, first vision:
"It is fitting that his first vision occurred in the desert. It is fitting to the point of irony that the desert carried the name, Death Valley. There he was, a young man barely 20, tromping around the desert like a fool. It was getting late, he was trying to make his way back to camp. The desert air had cooled considerably. He was hurrying against the closing twilight, scrambling down a gully—fast, and then slow, and then fast again—sliding on his ass down a crease of broken sandstone, loose rock spilling alongside him. A narrow twist and the ravine steepened. He turned around. With his back to the dimming sky, he worked his way down. He was moving faster than was wise. He noticed his error too late.
Fear flicked up through his legs. He pressed his weight into the rock, instinctively, hands and feet needling deeper into their holds. The rock wall dropped down and away. There was nothing beneath him but empty air. For the first time, his life was completely in his own hands.
He held on to the rock for long moments. His past collapsed behind him; his future lay truncated on the rocks below, its head cut off from Time. There was only death, wafting under him in the empty air. Nothing before this had been real. It was as if, for years, he had been held in a protected field, a set-up life, and now death had cut away the false foundations. He had never faced death before, but he could feel now that it had always been there—a fearsome abyss holding life in its empty fist, just as the empty air held him now.
He had to move. He was excruciatingly in command. He had to step deeper into his terror and further out over the void. There was no other way. To his left was a rounded outcropping of rock and on the other side of it a means of descent. Make for over there. He let go of his left handhold and slipped off one strap of the backpack, then switched hands, then slowly the other strap. He let the pack fall down to the rocks below. In some far-off place, in some unreal time, he hoped the flashlight had not broken.
Then slowly, he began to inch his way left cranny by cranny, hold by hold. He made slow, careful progress. He was halfway across. With the toe of his sneaker he felt out the loose-fitting rock in the next cleft. He kicked away at the broken bits of rock. Nudging his way in, he tested its strength. It was okay. He transferred his weight over to it. It held. He trusted it, committed to it. All his weight, now. The rock slipped and gave way. His knee banged against the rock wall, his foot forced down violently, jangling in the air, weightless. I'm falling. I'm dead.
But he did not fall. He clutched even harder to the rock wall, clenching it, hugging it—and held on. And within the flow of that single motion, a remarkable thing happened: his face also reached closer to the rock and kissed it—in farewell or in thankfulness. I cannot say. It was a pure bodily reaction, yet it was sacred; it was an act of instinctive reverence. He was kissing his fate, kissing God, kissing nature, kissing the desert, kissing the moment, kissing the particular piece of rock that held his life and chose to spare him.
He continued moving left. Once again he lost a hold and thought he was dead. But again, he managed to hold on. Finally, he reached the edge of the outcropped rock. One last pivot and, throwing his weight over, he had it straddled. He held on for a moment, breathing. I'm safe. I'm going to be okay. He rolled over to the other side, clambered down the side slope, grabbed his backpack, and headed down the mountain.
He didn't bother to get out the flashlight. He was burning lucid, white hot. He pounded down the gully, invincible. Through the dark, his feet sensed every rock. His body was a beautiful machine; it moved with certainty, almost with an uncanny foreknowledge. He knew at each turn what he would find. He was flush, fierce, bewildered with his own reality, his own natural power. He felt like a warrior, welcome in the desert.
(Boyd, Daily Afflictions, pp. XXI-XXIV)
The hero has survived and triumphed! How satisfying that is! It's what we want our readers to feel when our protagonist finally gets through the horrific rapids on her river of no return. She may be bruised and battered, but her victory is all the more sweet for that.
So, what do you think? If you check your protagonist's journey (the harrowing part of it, starting with the moment he or she takes that first false step) against this vignette, do you hit all the beats represented in Brother Void's harrowing experience as the tension builds and the stakes get unbearably high? Until we get to that last pivot, and complete it, we, like Brother Void, are doing our best to hang on and we are risking becoming dust in the wind. Something to think about, :-)