If You Don’t Know What To Do, Make ‘Em Sad

by Rachel Hauck

Riding my bike the other day, musing over my work-in-progress while also contemplating the book “The Nightingale” which I’d just finished, I realized that there is a certain sadness to the protagonist in books I love. In books the world loves.

Not morbid sadness. Not depressed. But a certain longing if you will.

Save for Elizabeth Bennett who covered her longing for true love with “snark” and piety.

In The Nightingale, the sister protagonists had a sad upbringing. Left with a minder by their father after their mother died.
In A Hundred Summers, the heroine has two points of view. One is a certain sadness and longing, wondering if she can get back the love she lost.

Girl On A Train has a desperate kind of feel, a locked in, unsettling first person narrative that’s both irritating and intriguing.

At MBT, we talk about what the character wants as a motivator when the story opens.

But the want has to come with an innate sadness.

They can’t get what they want. What they want is lost. Or unobtainable. Or perhaps undesirable. Whatever… you get my drift.

Even if the story opens on a happy occasion, we must get the sense of impending doom.

If she’s at her bridal shower, what she wants is happily ever after. She got her man. She is a month away from being married. But…

… she’s afraid happiness will never really be hers.

… an argument with her fiancé has create suspicion about a relationship at work.

… her best friend phoned to say she couldn’t make the wedding.

Naturally suspense, thrillers, novels involving Nazi’s (hello The Nightingale) have an inherent tension and sadness.

We know what the people want: food, warmth, peace, to live their lives without fear.

But digging down to the emotional elements, it’s not enough to want for those things, they must want for more. In The Nightingale, it was healing between the sisters, and each one with their father.

For the cop hero, he “wants” to get the bad guy for fear of a reaming from his boss.

Or he has to want to get the bad guy because the last bad guy who eluded him committed a double homicide.

Or the heroine has to escape the man stalking her for own safety as well as her young daughter.

There’s the big want — the external — but there has to be the internal, emotional want and a sadness surrounding it.

If you feel your story is lacking, asking, “What’s my protagonist sad about?”

Dig into the emotional layers.

My current protagonist is sad over the death of her best friend in Afghanistan.

But as I’m writing, I can’t get to her heart. She’s too external. Being sad over her friend is good, and a component, but what is SHE really dealing with?

She has to have a personal sadness. Over her own want. Over her own desire.

I need to dig deeper. The story is ultimately about her! The death of her friend is a catalyst to find the core of my heroine.

Make sense?

So if your protagonist seems kind of shallow, talking in circles, pause to see if you’ve really discovered their inner sadness. (Note: not depression!)

Don’t worry, the journey of the story is to turn the sadness into happiness. Or at least create satisfying resolution.

Got it?


Go write something brilliant.


New York Times, USA Today ​and Wall Street Journal best-selling, award-winning author Rachel Hauck loves a great story. She serves on the Executive Board for American Christian Fiction Writers. She is a past ACFW mentor of the year. A worship leader and Buckeye football fan, Rachel lives in Florida with her husband and ornery cat, Hepzibah. Read more about Rachel at www.rachelhauck.com.