HURTS SO GOOD: Making Your Characters Suffer to Heal Them

According to James Bonnet, a main character’s arc is like a spiral. If it spirals upward, he ends up at a better place than at the beginning of the story, taking him closer to paradise. If it spirals downward, he ends up worse off than where he started, miring him in hell.

The way to create an arc that resonates with the reader is to start with a flawed character. If you make your main character perfect, then he’s not interesting. Every one of us is broken or wounded in some way. None of us are perfect, and we don’t like our fictional people to be either, because it’s hard to empathize with someone who’s perfect. Our favorite characters tend to have dents and cracks. Your main character needs a flaw that gets in his way—even if he doesn’t realize that it is.

The first hint of this flaw usually comes from an event or series of events that happened when the character was young. Why? Because, according to brain researchers, when we’re young, our brains operate at a lower frequency that closely resembles a hypnotic state. That’s so that we can learn quickly how to survive into the environment into which we’re born. We’re downloading a tremendous amount of information in a short period of time. Think of babies and how much they learn in those first few years. We take everything literally and our parents’ and caregivers’ behaviors and beliefs become our own. That’s also why someone can easily break us. We haven’t yet developed the ability to distinguish between real and perception. Imagine those tender years filled with the message that you’re stupid or that you’re not good enough or that you’ll never amount to anything. Those messages go straight to the subconscious who’ll make sure that those beliefs prove themselves to us time and again, and those beliefs become the truths that unconsciously shape our behavior.

As we grow older, outside programming becomes less of an influence, but by that time, information already fills our subconscious about how the world works. So the situation that starts the main character’s flaw usually happens in the formative years (birth to twelve) and, as she grows up, other experiences “prove” that the flaw is good protection against the pain of this world.

Effective flaws come from fear, which in turn come from some kind of hurt that the person doesn’t want repeated. If you then take this flaw and force your character to face it, you’ll create all that beautiful conflict a good story needs. This flaw becomes the thing around which everything else in your story revolves.

One way to get to the flaw is to look at the character’s backstory. What kind of things made him into who he is? Filling out a character dossier with hair color and food preferences never worked for me, but looking at his psychology gives me an X-ray of his personality and something meaty to work with. Why? Because that’s where you’re going to find the motivation that drives him to do the things he does and make them sound logical—at least to him. Although your character won’t state his fear so clearly, because he’s probably not fully aware of it, the thought process runs along the lines of: If I do X action, then I can prevent Y pain.

What happened in the past to give him his view of life right now? What decision did he have to make that influenced how he sees the world? How does he see himself? He’s going to show these perceptions of himself and the world in his behavior in the present. And this is what you can exploit to make your story stand out.

The more you can force your main character to face his fear during the course of the story, the more he’ll have to alter his way of acting. At first he tries to hang on to what’s always worked in the past. Then bit by bit he changes. One last test shows him that he can’t ever go back. This allows the new and healthier habit to better his life. (Or, if you’re into tragedy, then he doesn’t learn and ends up an even shallower shell of himself.)

Logic doesn’t drive the human mind. The most primitive part of the brain is pure emotion—fight or flight or freeze. Protect yourself and live. As human beings we’re programmed for survival. And we respond with primal emotions. Analyze your characters’ fears, where they started, what behaviors they cause, how those behaviors are keeping him from reaching his goal. Then force them to face the thing they fear most.

If you choose a universal fear, the reader can’t help empathize with your main character’s plight, cheer for him as he faces each new obstacle, and celebrate his success, (or mourn his failure.)

Those stories that touch us, touch our emotions, and you can trace those primal emotions to that fear, that flaw the main character uses to protect himself from the pain of the world, helping you create a character arc that fuels your story conflict.