A Protagonist’s Pain: why heroes must suffer


“You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!” -Rocky Balboa.

Sipho (left) served time on Robben Island. (G.Miller)

If there is one thing I’ve learned as a writer, journalist, and traveler, it’s that heroes often suffer.  I mean that in the most admirable way possible because the greatest hero stories contain great hardship and trauma, and yet the heroes push through to win. The same can be said for real-life heroes who also inspire much of my writing. For example, Nelson Mandela served his prison term on Robben Island, and it would be nice if he didn’t. Upon visiting there, I found the conditions destitute of luxury, and Mandela’s room made my studio apartment look like a penthouse suite. Per our tour guide Sipho, the prisoners suffered inhumane treatment from the guards as well.

Nelson Mandela’s cell gave me a new appreciation for the phrase “bare necessities.” (G. Miller)

Suffering isn’t a heroic trait in itself. Whole classes of people suffered slavery, torture, and genocide, and while they are respected as the victims of an injustice, only those who rise up and fight are called heroes. Mandela changed his nation for the better, and his contributions to society are etched in eternity because he refused to accept his suffering as the end of his legacy. Though he was a prominent figure in that regard, he wasn’t alone, and you don’t have to be famous to be a hero.  Sipho described how prisoners survived their oppression and found ways to educate themselves and keep their spirits up, making them heroes in my eyes.

With this in mind, I make my fictional heroes suffer, and that’s a great form of cruelty because Achilla Johnson survives moments that I’m not sure I could. She grows up fighting her own mother every day. Her first date ends in sexual assault. She fights to save her father and stepmother from impending death before her senior prom, and by the time she’s in her mid-twenties, she travels the country avenging her father’s murder and her brother’s rape. Then she meets Ares Harris who brainwashes her lover into attacking her and then, even after all of her training and hardship, decimates her himself until she consumes a performance-enhancing drug just to keep up with him. From Achilla the Strong to Strike of the Mantis, she suffers loss, heartbreak and literal blood, sweat, and tears.

Achilla lost the first round against Ares, but she bounced back.

Yeah, that’s not an easy life, and all that happens before she meets her next level of hell in Artemis Harris (see my previous blog post on her).

What do all of Johnson’s enemies have in common? She’s not their only victim. Ailina brutalizes Bridgeport residents for years. Xerxes, and his associates like Blue Eyes, assassinate people around the world. Ares hurts women for procreation and sport and Artemis follows in his footsteps. Still, these enemies have another trait in common. They have yet to take Johnson down, and she always finds a way to foil them. That’s what makes her heroic, even with all of her flaws.

Artemis and Apollo Johnson are Achilla’s students, but are they her equals?

In Words of the Serpent, we see a passing of the torch from Achilla to Apollo and Athena, children who don’t grow up with nearly as much hardship as their aunt.  They grow up with a wealthy politician and former pro basketball player for a father.  They train hard under Achilla, but she doesn’t abuse them.  Their lives are pampered compared to Achilla’s, and that’s exactly how she wants it. Suffering makes for a great story, but no one with a conscience willingly inflicts it on their loved ones or allows it to occur, so she protects them as long as she can.

Of course, their lives change. Apollo suffers torture when Artemis kidnaps him. As a result of PTSD, he fights with his family, and runs away. Athena defeats Artemis,  but spares her life and suffers when the police connected to Artemis and Xerxes bomb Athena’s boyfriend and he dies in her arms. Apollo and Athena’s resolve is certainly heroic, but their work is far from over. Apollo has chosen his route, forming a rival organization to combat Artemis outside the law.  Athena follows in her father’s social justice footsteps and works to help the public good by providing services for those addicted to manna, the drug Artemis uses to entrap her followers. In Book Five, this three-way conflict with Artemis will reach a head, and everyone must find a way to adapt.

How much suffering will Apollo and Athena endure before they become heroes with eternal legacies?  With such a privileged childhood can either of them really walk in Achilla’s shoes?  Will either of them survive Artemis long enough to tell their own hero stories? Will they die knowing they’ve changed the world for the better? You’ll find out in Book Five, but know that heroes aren’t forged in comfort or leisure. At some point, life will test them, and they must respond. Their response tells you if the life of a hero is meant for them and if they can take the hits and keep moving forward like Mandela did.

Be heroes, my friends.

No apologies,


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