Think about your favorite novels. I’m guessing that the stories involved a significant loss for the character. As writers we love our characters like friends and family, so despite throwing some obstacles in their way, we tend to coddle them – at least a little. But in real life, people deepen and grow when life veers off in the opposite direction of their dreams, and so will our characters. It’s when they start to struggle and mature that our readers empathize with them and begin to think of the characters as their friends and family too.
Write stories with big losses.
Every story contains some risk and probably at least a little loss. But truly, the ones that will resonate are the ones where the character doesn’t just risk something, they actually lose it, and lose it big. Think of Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, losing her daughter and then both Rhett and Ashley. Why else would such a superficial character win the hearts of readers? We become her as we think of the profound loss. Or think of The Kite Runner where Amir's father goes from one of the most respected men in Afghanistan to a gas station attendant in California. The profound loss is what makes it a compelling read.
Write stories with big sacrifices.
And then there is another kind of loss that reaches even deeper. It’s the sacrifice, or the loss the hero/heroine makes willingly for a cause. Katniss takes her sister’s place in the hunger games, or Sydney Carton goes to the guillotine in Darnay’s place in A Tale of Two Cities.
Even as readers pick out books for entertainment, they’re looking for something else too. They’re looking for answers. Why am I here? Who am I capable of becoming in this oh-so imperfect world? How do I make the most of a life that squirms out of my control and bites right where it hurts? Stories that answer those questions with a little bit of realism get our attention and stay with us. And what reality doesn't include loss and sacrifice?
Write stories with big redemption.
It’s popular, especially in more literary writing, to show an ending where everything is lost in the end. After a war, the character is permanently scarred (All the Light We Cannot See). After childhood abuse, we find the characters decades later still centered on their grief (The Poisonwood Bible).
I guess I have a different take. 1) We read for hope, and a book that gives hope will stay with the reader in their own times of hopelessness. 2) It’s human nature to find redemption. While emotional scars may be somewhat permanent, I believe we’re wired to go on with life, to form meaningful relationships and find personal happiness in spite of those scars. It’s not unrealistic to show that with some clear thinking, some determination and profound love, we can end up in a positive place.
So Amir after sacrificing his self-respect in The Kite Runner is told by his father’s friend, “You can be good again.” And he risks his life to find that goodness.
One of my favorite redemptive novels is The Sparrow. By the end of Book 2, decades have passed and Emilio is able to see that the suffering he unwittingly unleashed, both on himself and an entire planet, has brought some incredibly good things too. Those good things would never have happened had he not made the decisions he did. That’s my favorite kind of redemption – not just healing or making things right, but creating goodness out of the suffering itself. And no doubt, that’s why The Sparrow and its sequel are still selling well twenty years after they were first published.