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There's an old saying: Good judgment comes from experience, experience comes from bad judgment. But since bad judgment can be deadly, scientists believe that the reason the brain allows us to get lost in a good story is because sometimes the best experience to learn from is someone else's, for instance, your protagonist. That's why when you're writing a story, everything that can go wrong must go wrong and then some. Your protagonist has to work hard to earn her victory.
And the only way she can do that is if you construct a plot that forces her to face things she has probably spent her whole life trying to avoid. This means that everything she tries to do to solve the problem is only going to make it worse. That's how the stakes escalate and the story builds. Your goal, therefore, is to undermine your protagonist's best laid plans at every turn, forcing her to dig deep and discover what she is really made of.
Anyone can say they're a hero; your story will force your protagonist to prove it. With that in mind, here are six ways to ensure that your story will make your protagonist earn her hero status. First, don't let your characters admit anything they aren't forced to, even to themselves. Information is currency, and the only way anyone ever admits to anything is because they've been backed into a corner. Second, let your protagonist lie and have secrets so the story can force him to divulge things he really doesn't want to.
Story often comes to life in the space between what a character says out loud and what they're really thinking. But remember, unless the reader knows what those secrets and lies are, they won't know the real why behind the character's actions. So, don't keep secrets secret from the reader. Third, let your character start out betting small, and end up betting it all. When faced with a big problem we can't avoid, it is human nature to do as little as possible and hope to heck that, that solves it; fat chance, almost always, that only makes it worse.
The same is true of your protagonist, which is bad for him but good for the reader. The other quirk of human nature to keep in mind is as Aesop so astutely said: Men often bear little grievances with less courage than they do large misfortunes. Thus, by the end, when your protagonist has to give up everything in order to solve the problem, chances are he will do it far more willingly than when he parted with that first measly dollar. Fourth, make sure there is a clear, present, and escalating danger.
A story needs a force of opposition. Without one, the protagonist has no reason to get up out of his easy chair. The only way he can prove his worth is if the force of opposition is well-defined, present, and growing. It can't be a hazy threat that never really materializes, no matter how potentially dangerous. It's not always a person, but it's always personified. Think of the force of opposition as a rapidly ticking clock that not only forces the protagonist to take action, but that constantly ups the game, so the protagonist must do likewise.
Fifth, make your protagonist earn everything. Never give him the benefit of the doubt, or let anything come to him easily. Remember, there's no such thing as a free lunch, unless of course, it's poisoned. Sixth, do expose your character's flaws, demons, and insecurities. Flaws aren't just what makes characters interesting, they are what make them accessible. Writers often think their characters have to be likable, meaning they can never do anything wrong or think a bad thought.
But often what makes a character likable are his flaws and insecurities. They would allow us to identify with them, and so root for them. What's more, stories are about how the protagonist overcomes his deepest fear, his most closely held misbelief. A character who has no flaws has nothing to learn, and so nothing to teach us, which brings us back to where we began. Since the best experience to learn from is someone else's bad experience, be mean to your protagonist.
After all, as Emily Dickinson said: A wounded deer leaps the highest.
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