Your Protagonist Deserves to Suffer
There is a subtle art to writing characters that suffer and an even more subtle finesse to making that suffering poignant and transformative. In my earliest screenplays, I thought it was significant and interesting enough to make my characters suffer for the sake of drama, emotion and aesthetic — often without narrative reason or rhetorical irony. For this reason (and many others, but this in particular) my writing was poor. As sadistic as it may sound, my writing vastly improved when I fell into the realization that my characters, namely my protagonist, deserve to suffer. In a funny way, and because conflict simply breeds it, suffering is story.
I’m reminded of some obvious examples but I’ll focus on my favorite: Michael Gary Scott (The Office). Using a character like this is really coming at my point with a sledgehammer, but it’s been a while since writing one of these articles and I could use the muscular shock. So let’s think about Michael. Michael was/is a profoundly insensitive, irresponsible, oblivious and immature individual. Michael Scott, as the protagonist of the show, probably suffered more than all of his supporting characters put together. He suffered their rejection and their scorn daily, trudging around the office, hands in his pockets, wondering why he went uninvited to parties and cookouts. He suffered comical dissent and retaliation from his employees and suffered chronic condescension, displacement and isolation from his higher-ups. Is there a single episode of the show where Michael isn’t slouched over his desk with his face in his palms or whispering angrily to his logically-oriented opposition? Michael Scott seems to exist in a state of perpetual suffering and he deserves every last bit of it. His inappropriate antics always catch up to him; and they should. He suffers until he learns. Don’t we all?
Okay, that was a stark example. In the realm of protagonists, Michael Scott could be one of the most polarizing in television history — you love him or hate him; I don’t know of many people who fell in between. But let’s consider a character with a better track record: Leslie Knope (Parks & Rec). In a lot of ways, Leslie is the exact opposite of Michael Scott. She’s fiercely dedicated to maintaining her work ethic, compassionate with her coworkers (save for Jerry), and is as pure-hearted and well-intentioned as one could hope to be in a banal, soul sucking government career. To be clear, Leslie’s suffering frequently manifests as hopelessness, professional fatigue and despair, defeat, etc. Anyway, we’ve all watched the show and we all understand that Leslie suffers, but do we correctly identify the source of her suffering? Do we hold her responsible? It’s easy to say that the source of her suffering is conflict caused by her deeply loving and human sensibilities raging against the cold, lifeless bureaucratic corpse of Pawnee, Indiana, but who’s really at fault? Pawnee is not an active antagonist, rather, it’s a reactive antagonist — a putrid mound of sloth and inefficacy that sits and waits for Leslie to spearhead change so that it can shoot her down. As much as we want to cast blame on Pawnee, it’s Leslie’s own character flaws that inform her suffering. Even if her intentions are pure, Leslie is a victim of her own obsessive tendencies. She’s a victim of her own rigid and inflexible nature and her unwillingness to accept what she cannot change. Isn’t that what makes her so great? Yes. It’s also why she deserves to suffer — regardless of whether or not her actions are noble.
I’m reminded of the episode in which representatives from Pawnee’s Venezuelan sister-city came to stay in Pawnee. Leslie’s pride for, and obsessive love of, Pawnee inspired her to embellish every part of the town. She fudged its cultural norms and endured verbal abuse in an effort to win the approval of high-ranking foreign officials. Once Leslie realized that their approval and love of Pawnee doesn’t matter, her suffering ends and she is able to find peace. In a decisive moment she rejects the hidden blade of the foreign officials’ “good will” and parries it with self-assured confidence. Pawnee might not be a decadent paradise, but it’s good enough for Leslie.
This brings me to my final point. Our characters, much like us, deserve to suffer until we learn what it is that’s holding us back. Leslie deserved to struggle with her desperate need for approval until she could learn that she simply doesn’t need approval. I can and will continue to suffer from lethargy and stomach troubles until I begin making a conscious decision to reduce my sugar intake.
Do all characters deserve all of the suffering that befalls them? Of course not. What did Kevin do to deserve his infamous chili spill? Jerry (Gary, Larry) could be the the premier example of a character haunted by undeserved wrath. These stories reflect life and in real life people suffer all of the time for things they have no control over — yes. We also (all of us) suffer from problems we’ve created and continue to maintain. In this lifetime, can we break the self-inflicted chains that bind us? I hope we can and I hope we do. The next time you’re successful in doing so, think about how that suffering began and what it took to break free. You’ll find yourself reflecting on a unique narrative; a story in which you are the protagonist and, in this weird, cosmic handshake with your past, present and future self, you ended something you deserved and received a timeless lesson. A “moral of the story”, if you will.