This post contains SPOILERS for the plot of the fifth episode of series 10 of Doctor Who – Oxygen.
Sometimes we must make hard decisions for the sake of our story. It would be much better if we all were courageous enough to do so since there are many possibilities that are hardly explored. And sometimes we make a decision to put our protagonist in what we think is the worst case scenario but we fail to show the effect it has on them.
This is all very hard to do once we start loving our characters. Alas, if we really want to go beyond what has been done, we must summon the courage and trigger a series of terrible things that happen to our protagonist. That’s entertainment for you, but it’s art as well if done properly.
As I was planning my today’s posts last night, I took a break to enjoy the new episode of my ultimate favorite TV show, Doctor Who. I love this show since it first aired in my country in 2006, that’s eleven years of being completely obsessed with a show. If you’re not familiar with the show, the main point I’ll discuss here is the fact that the protagonist, the Doctor, travels through time and space, gets in all sorts of troubles but in the end successfully, even though he’s extremely reckless, solves the problem in the end. But, the most important thing here is – he’s completely reckless.
He does things he shouldn’t do when he’s emotional but he gets away with it. Finally, last night, he saved her friend by giving her his helmet. He walked in the vacuum of space unprotected, which cost him his eyesight. Now, he immediately said he can cure it once they get back to safety and it happened just as he said. But, at the very end it was revealed he was lying to comfort her and he was still blind.
Let’s dissect this for a moment, as I encouraged you to do. This happened at the end of the first half of the season and our protagonist lost his eyesight.
First thing of major importance is this: it makes brilliant storytelling when a writer does such thing. Even though we see blindness (sometimes as a consequence and more often as a plot device), this setback in the main characters life is the worst thing that could happen to him. So, for the sake of this article, let’s forget that it’s just blindness, let’s focus on the concept of having our main character ruined in some way.
There are three things that must be done to pull this off successfully and I’m about to reveal them to you. I offer you my 3H method
On the example of the Doctor, there must be established history of your protagonist where they don’t pay the price for what they do, and they must be loved by your readers.
If you want to set up the worst case scenario, this is how you do it. Make your characters important feature – they pull off stunts unhurt.
Have it be that way for at least one third of your novel, even a half. Have your protagonist get away with paying the price for what they do, leave the consequences of actions for later. Your readers will get the adrenaline rush, not knowing if your protagonist will get hurt. But, in the end they’ll expect them to get away safely since that’s how it usually works.
Your protagonist should get hit the hardest in an act of heroism. It will raise the emotional consequences. It will be unexpected since your readers expect the protagonist to achieve their goal as they did before.
In a reckless act oh heroism, they pay the price for it. It is very powerful concept. It has been used before but be sure to push it even further.
The consequences must be visible, they must affect your protagonist and your story. It will be hard to write it. It will be as hard for you as it is for your protagonist. But, that’s the price you have to pay.
Your protagonist must suffer for their behavior and it will be unfair since they’re such altruists. It will be sad and it will complicate things further.
As in the case of Doctor Who, you could add some hope and snatch it away afterwards to get your audience feel it even more.
There they are, three points of importance to achieve the mentioned effect.
You must hit your protagonist hard, hit them where it hurts. It will hurt you as well but it will be worth it.
Author: Mladen Reljanović
Mladen Reljanović is the founder and lead writer at Writer to Writers. He is the author of Oaktown stories, senior student of communication and a pianist.