In her endlessly quotable book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott advises that we cannot give our characters an easy time of it. Specifically, she writes:
But no matter what, you are probably going to have to let bad things happen to some of the characters you love or you won’t have much of a story. Bad things happen to good characters, because our actions have consequences …
The poet Kathleen Flenniken considers the hard times good characters endure in her poem “The League of Minor Characters”:
The main character sits on his childhood bed
naming everything that’s gone—ex-job, ex-wife,
ex-best friend—and finally apprehends
the breakdown we’ve felt coming since chapter five.
When his doctor calls with test results, most of us
decide to remain minor characters …
It is difficult indeed being a main character in a book or short story. Even some minor characters encounter dreadful difficulties. But as Lamott says, if there are no hard times, there is not much of a story.
A fundamental element of a work of fiction, as well as some memoirs, is that the main character is driven to reach a specific goal. Her path to this essential goal is twisted and thorny and loaded with obstacles. As she perseveres, conquering these challenges, she grows and changes, usually for the better, although potentially for the worse. In the end she reaches her goal—or doesn’t. Regardless, she has encountered all of the hard times you knew she had to surmount in order for you to have written a story that holds a reader’s interest.
So consider this as you sit down to write. You have a main character, she has a goal. You know that she will reach this goal (or not) by the time you get to the end of the book. Between these bookends are the hard times for good characters. They will lose their jobs or their homes or their spouses. They may be devastated by an unexpected death. A mistake they made twenty years ago may ricochet back on them. Of course, these are dramatic, eight-on-a-scale-of-ten hard times, and you don’t want to present your characters with one shattering crisis after another. Go easy on them at times, let them relax and recover before throwing another rock in their path. Don’t make your story too bleak, or your reader might find the going too tough and set the book aside.
What a relief for the writer as well, though, when the end is reached, your character has withstood all the slings and arrows you have thrown at her, and you can write that final resolution with satisfaction. You both came through the hard times and have a book to show for it.