In order for you to write a story worth a damn you’re going to have hurt your main character in horrific, cruel and frankly unsporting ways.
In order for your story to be good, you need a believable hero. And in order for your hero to be believable, you’re going to have to beat the living fuck out of him.
Why? Because pain is credibility. You need the reader to sympathise with your character, or at least empathise. And your character will have to suffer for that sympathy.
A good hero has to make sacrifices. A good writer has to inflict unusual punishment on a character in order to communicate that sacrifice.
And a great writer makes flagellation an art.
The reason this works is simple manipulation. You see, you’re not just hurting your main character, you’re punishing the reader. You’re hooking them in to your story by toying with their emotions.
And once that happends, the bastards will just keep coming back for more.
Once the reader is hooked, they will follow the hero anywhere. Once the reader is hooked, they will feel every goddamn blow, every bit of pain, every word of it.
A sympathetic main character is almost more important than any other factor of your story. If people don’t want to read about your character, then your story is dead.
Formerly-alive screenwriting tutor Blake Snyder wrote a book about this very thing called Save The Cat. It’s well worth a read if you are the kind of writer who reads (AKA a good writer).
Snyder’s tenet is that the reader will follow your character - no matter how much of an complete and unrepentant bastard they are - as long as you feature a compelling ‘Save the Cat’ moment in your opening pages.
A 'Save the Cat’ moment could mean literally having your abominable asshole of a lead character actually saving a cat.
Sometimes it’s a significant event - perhaps the character jumps in front of a truck to save the life of a child.
It can also be something small, such as having them lie to cover for someone and getting themselves in trouble, even when it would have been easier to tell the truth.
'But my character is an anti-hero,’ you’re screaming, even though I can’t hear you. 'The reader doesn’t need to sympathise with them,’
Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. With a side of fuck you.
The reader needs a reason to follow your character. Give them one. No matter how small.
If you can’t find an ounce of vulnerability in your character then either you can’t write for fucking toffee, or you’re enough of an asshole to think you don’t have any vulnerabilities, at which point you have no business basing a character on yourself.
Let’s not beat around the proverbial privet here; your lead character is you. Yes it fucking is. The least you can do is give him your childhood abuse, your erectile dysfunction, something to make him slightly more sympathetic.
Stop crying and pay attention.
Once you’ve got the reader hooked, keeping them hooked is the easy part. All you’ve got to do is keep hurting your hero. Make them suffer.
Take something from them. Take everything from them. Better yet; give them something for a few chapters, then take it away. Let them climb two rungs up the ladder and knock them back one. Make it embarrassing. Humiliating.
And laugh while you do it. Laugh at the poor bastard, laugh at the fate you are dishing out for him.
The reader won’t be laughing. They’ll be right there, as your hero gets up, dusts himself off and presses forward.
Importantly, no matter how fucked up they are, no matter how hurt, no matter how impossible, keep your hero crawling towards the end.
Once they reach their goal, the reader will have been through hell and highwater with them, and their victory will be the reader’s victory.
They’ll have come through the pain together. And you’ll have created a character the reader will never forget.
If you want to write a good story, hurt your hero. If you want to write a great story, make them suffer.
Got a favourite save the cat moment? A favourite way of making the reader sympathise? Let me know in the comments!