Why Bad Things Happen to Good Characters

I’ve heard it stated over and over at conferences, in blog posts and articles, and from my editor, Paula. Good writing isn’t about a character, or group of characters. It isn’t even about those characters doing things. It’s about those characters being prevented from achieving a goal. The whole point of a good story is the conflict. If the character doesn’t struggle, there’s no story.

What’s more, all the conflict in the world won’t matter if the reader doesn’t care what happens to the character. Caring + conflict = story.

As simple as it seems, that was so hard for me to learn. My first attempts surrounded my protagonist with drama, but she sailed through it without any turmoil or personal angst. I’m still honing this skill.

I try to think of it this way.

No matter how relatable or lovable the hobbits and elves and dwarves and other characters, regardless of rich storybuilding, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings would never have become a classic if:

  • Sméagol had not been overtaken by Sauron’s evil influence through the One Ring;
  • Bilbo had gone all the way to the Lonely Mountain and back without encountering trolls, goblins, Gollum, wargs, giant spiders, and a dragon;
  • Frodo had simply strolled up to the fires of Mount Doom, tossed the ring in, and walked away;
  • Aragorn had quietly assumed the throne in Gondor without any opposition;
  • Saruman had agreed with Gandalf that his actions were counterproductive to peace, and changed his ways.

Do you see?

Readers want a vicarious experience. They want to fall into a great tale well told and live it through the characters’ joy and pain and anguish and success or failure.

So how do we, as writers, give that to them?

First and foremost, we need a relatable protagonist, someone the reader can connect to on an emotional level. Whether the character is human, alien, animal or something else, if the reader has absolutely nothing in common with that character, they won’t care what happens to her. There must be some connection for the story to work, even if it’s only that the character has some compelling or sympathetic trait to hook the reader.

Second, the protagonist needs a goal, something more important than finding every item on their grocery list. Think young girl who longs to live an average life. Think scientist who wants to complete a routine mission with his teammates. Think aspiring female journalist who seeks a successful writing career in the 1960s.

Third, the antagonist (which is sometimes an environmental element) must do whatever it takes to prevent the protagonist from achieving her goal. What’s the absolute worst thing that can happen? The young girl who wants an average life is forced into an arena where she must fight to the death against other children until only one of them remains alive. The scientist is stranded alone on a hostile alien world with an inadequate supply of food and no hope of rescue for four years. The journalist decides to write about the plight of the black maids among her racist white socialite neighbors, and must convince the maids themselves, who have everything to lose, to help her.

Ah, now the stories take on life, substance, empathy. The reader roots for the protagonist and lives through her struggle and eventual success or failure. That is what will interest an agent and, eventually, a publisher. That is what will sell the story and hook our readers.

And that is what a writing career is all about.