We do awful things to the characters in our stories, don’t we? We throw rocks at them all the time... literally, sometimes, as mentioned above. Other times --- perhaps more often --- it’s a little more metaphorical. Shakespeare talked about ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,’ and my gosh, we lay some outrageous fortunes on characters. Sometimes, those fortunes are justified. Other times, well, perhaps not so much. (‘How could he do such a thing? That character was just so sweet!’) But we have to, of course. A story where nothing bad ever happens to the protagonist or other characters would be pretty damn dull. Additionally, how a character responds to adversity says an awful lot about him/her.
So today, I’m telling you to throw rocks at your characters (a phrase originally given me by my editor). Especially your protagonist.
More often than not, protagonists don’t tend to die on us, and with good reason: if the author has done his/her job properly, we’ve become emotionally invested in those protagonists, and although it happens distressingly routinely in life --- the loss of people in our lives in whom we’re emotionally invested --- there’s at least a tacit understanding on the part of both author and reader that the author gets to play God in a way none of us get to in real life. So really awful things can be avoided, or at least fixed by story’s end --- sometimes long before.
However, even if you can’t/won’t kill off your protagonist, you can, and should, throw lots of rocks at them. Make your readers feel there’s at least a chance something truly lethal could wander along and off the protagonist. Or at least, if your protagonist leads a charmed existence and doesn’t seem to die no matter what, make your readers feel that life still cheerfully hurls crap and vomit at him/her the way it tends to do with real people. Why? Because that’s what we can all relate to (some more than others, admittedly), and that’s how we identify/empathize with people, and that’s what you want your readers to do.
How to do this? Two ways: externally and internally.
External crap is perhaps in some ways the easier of the two, because it’s what life obviously does to all of us: throw the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.’ Unrelentingly. Implacably. Unendingly. (Again, some more than others.) It’s what life does. Natural disasters, illness, injuries, family crises, and, especially in stories (hopefully more so in stories than in real life), meddling by malevolent personalities, mortal or otherwise, often with lethal intent (yikes!). External crap doesn’t always have to be lethal, either... it can range from merely annoying setback to potentially life-threatening disaster.
But internal crap should be easy, too, because we’ve all got that to some extent, but too many writers want their protagonists to be perfect. We like putting people on a pedestal. Especially our heroes. Problem is, heroes invariably have feet of clay. So give your protagonist an internal bugbear or six to deal with. For example, I bestowed on my protagonist in Gryphon’s Heir --- Rhiss, his name is, a fine upstanding young man --- a sense of doubt about his own worth varying from mildly irritating to himself and others to nearly incapacitating. And... possibly one or two other neuroses as well, because most of us have several, don’t we?
So... to paraphrase Will, cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of chaos on your characters.
Or, as Shirley Jackson might say: here, have a rock... and throw it at that nice person over there.