Vladamir Nabokov suggested that: “The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.”
It’s common advice from writing coaches, to endanger your protagonist, to set them challenges that they need to overcome to get to where they’re going—which is often simply returning the situation to normal. Think of what Frodo went through in The Lord of The Rings, just to get rid of that pesky ring.
No one likes a smart arse, and a completely indomitable hero would be boring, running the risk of making their opponents more appealing…which is always likely to happen anyway, as readers identify more with character flaws than moral strength. Fighting the system is more romantic than defending it. Far more murderers’ names are recalled, than the lawmen who captured or killed them.
A protagonist becomes more attractive when they show their humanity. If they make mistakes, especially if the reader knows they’re doing so and they don’t, it elicits sympathy and the reader gets behind their efforts. Such vulnerability needn’t make the hero sappy: we all know what sort of hand a velvet glove contains.
Some authors take their abuse of their protagonist to extremes. Jo Nesbö regularly throws his Swedish detective Harry Hole into ghastly situations, including being addicted to booze and drugs, getting captured and tortured, as well as framed and suspended from duties, beaten-up, stabbed and shot. In the first novel of the series The Bat, Harry is a fish out of water, investigating a serial killer in Australia and is also drinking like a fish!
I introduced my protagonist Detective Chief Inspector Neil Kettle standing on a Cornish beach in winter, looking at the nude corpse of a naturist, who appears to have been murdered. He’s trying not to think about the last time he was there, with his wife, who died in a traffic accident two years before. Hopefully, readers will sympathise with his state of mind, while admiring his fortitude in pursuing the killer.
He clings to his job as a way of coping with life, as he spirals down into depression, and it’s not until the end of Book 2 that he’s functioning anything like normal. He’s been brought low by his illness, but his detective colleagues have also faced threats—his ageing deputy is mugged and knocked unconscious and kicked hard enough to break ribs, prompting his retirement. In the next book, his replacement becomes the last victim of a serial killer, pounded to death with a primitive mace—a club with nails. On another case, a detective’s personal life is disrupted when a murdering husband and wife, disgraced intelligence agents with a grudge against society, hack into her emails. They glean enough information to attack the police force’s site, disrupting the investigation into them.
Various coppers get clobbered while making arrests, but Neil is cleverly poisoned by the ex-agents, who use poison-dart frog toxin to knock him out, sending him into hallucinations. In the last story, completed in 2018, in the penultimate chapter, Neil is stabbed and slashed, defending himself by almost battering his assailant to death with an extendable baton.
He’s in intensive care at the close of the story, in a coma and receiving blood transfusions. He faces suspension for his attack on the swordsman—who’s died.
I enjoyed putting my protagonist in jeopardy…burying him in an avalanche of violence with consequences for his career.
What rocks have you thrown at your characters?
How are they damaged by the threats to their life?
Do they wreak revenge?
Have you killed any of your goodies off?