How Sad is Too Sad?

While plugging away on my current novel, I had to stop myself. I needed to just put everything aside and think about what was going on with my story, specifically my protagonist

My main character’s name is Epic Small. Epic is a twenty-five year old man. His mother left him when he was a young boy. His father’s failing shoe store business was burned to the ground years ago and he’s been scraping by on welfare checks and alcohol ever since. Epic visits his therapist on a regular basis, mostly just to keep the psychopharmaceutical prescriptions coming, the only thing that helps him find some comfort in his solitary life. His love life has been a series of lessons in embarrassment. He works his menial job in a laundry & linen supply company because he’s never had a post-secondary education. He’s not really trying in life, just flowing along with what the world brings him, feeling disconnected and out of place the whole time. Of course, there’s more to the story as we go along, but that wasn’t really my point in stopping to think about this.

The point is this: Epic Small is a sad character. In my writing I’ve always felt a helping of sympathy was important for a reader to root for the protagonist. But am I going too far with this one? At what point does sad become too sad?

I wrote a screenplay years ago entitled Touching Glass. This was my first official attempt at really writing anything. I’ll include some excerpts from it on this blog sometime in the future. The premise was basically: Boy meets girl – boy is dumped by girl – boy never gets over girl – boy meets girl again many years later – boy tries to win girl back – boy fails – boy is miserable – boy kills himself. Yes. Boy KILLS himself.

In retrospect, that particular story went a bit too far. How can we really care in the end when this guy doesn’t win and simply ends it all? We can’t. But as a young writer trying to get the thoughts and feelings out that I needed to, this is what I believed had to happen. He had to die for the audience to feel for him in the end. The sadder the better, right?

I learned a few things from that first screenplay, and although I didn’t have any more protagonists off themselves in later writing, I still had the itch to make them sad sacks. Sympathy from your audience is an important thing, but the trick is going about it the right way. Which brings me to now.

I really want Epic to feel as though his place in this world is a little off. He’s not where he was meant to be. But it is also vital that the reader believes this too and that they are rooting for Epic through his ups and (mostly) downs. Is it a bad idea to come blazing out of the gates with this character who doesn’t catch a break, especially if this character isn’t actively trying to turn things around?

How sad is too sad?


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