And as a result, you become more intimate.
Then I asked you to think about your own close friends. Do you not know something about them that many, many other people do not? And does this not make you feel closer to them in some way? More attached and more vested in their well-being.
I mean it’s one thing to know that your neighbor was once a lifeguard at the local beach. It’s another thing to know that your neighbor was once a lifeguard at the local beach who once saw a three year girl old drown in the rough surf on a day when despite all of his best efforts, he just couldn’t swim out fast enough to save her – and while he was applying CPR, this child, this toddler, this innocent, angelic, brown-eyed little package of sweetness, died in his salty arms.
See, the back story hurt builds bonds between the audience and the protagonist while better illuminating the motivation behind why the character is so driven to achieve their current outward goals.
Remember earlier when I talked about how, as a writer, the worse you hurt your hero, the better. And I also declared that the reason you want to do this is because audiences LOVE it. Well, let’s take the story of the lifeguard neighbor I just whipped up above. If I were going to tell the story, I’d bring the reader right into the heart of his experience. They would live his anguish. The physical fight against the rough waves of the ocean knowing that a three year old girl is drowning and it’s your job, your duty, your professional and moral responsibility to save her.
But you fail. This girl dies in your arms. Sand in your protagonist’s face. Heartbreak in her mother’s eyes. Guilt in your soul that you couldn’t swim faster, you didn’t train harder, you weren’t more alert before this girl fell into the beach’s danger zone of rough waves and a big undertow. Mr. Lifeguard, that was your job, her family, her mother, the community was counting on you and you failed. The result of your failure is that a child is dead. Now how are you going to live with that?
Ouch, right? I mean, this hero is crushed. And you, even reading this right now, are probably also hurt and wildly sympathetic to the pain in this hero’s heart.
As a writer, that’s just where I want you. Why? Because, is this story over? Of course not!
There’s been an accident. A boat filled with eight year old girls at Ocean Camp has capsized. Five children are stranded and the swells are rising. There’s only one person who can make it to the breakers: your neighbor. And though he hasn’t patrolled a beach in years and he’s given up being a lifeguard, given up thinking he’s got any value to this world at all, he knows this is no time for self-pity. It’s not a question of can he save these young girls; the fact is, he must.
It’s why he’s been training for triathlons all these years. Ever since that young girl’s death, instead of letting his body go soft, he’s been torturing his body, running marathons, biking up mountaintops, swimming through frozen, wavy waters, trying to make the guilt and hurt go away. But really, he always knew deep in his heart that at some point in his life, he’d be called yet again to save another human being. It’s what he was born to do. It’s why his body is now carved like a piece of steel and his grit is as resolved as any Greek hero from the heights of Mount Olympus.
Those innocent little eight-year old girls, the ones with freckles and the puppy dogs and pigtails and the math homework, the innocent little ocean campers that are going to die unless our hero rises to the occasion. Well, they’re not going to die because our hero has just re-discovered his life’s purpose…
He must save Ocean Camp!
(I know, I know, I better be careful before some slick Hollywood agent gives me a call and says, “So tell me, who’s got the rights to this little Ocean Camp project? I’m thinking Brad Pitt.)
Audiences love to see and feel the hero’s hurt because they love to see and feel the hero’s triumph. Pain and glory are tied at the hip. The worse the hurt, the lower the hero sinks, and then the higher the inevitable ascendancy. Besides, everyone in the audience knows what deep hurt feels like in their own lives so when they see a hurt hero rise like a Phoenix from the ashes the message to them that they take is, “And so will I.”
Hope is the heartbeat of humanity. Great stories, at least the kind that I strive to write, stand of this fulcrum. As a writer, yours can, too.