What’s wrong with losing everything?
Everyone loves a hero on the edge of losing everything. A hero who manages to, against all odds, squeak by at the last second, pull a tremendous plan off, find that legal loophole, or cut the red wire (it’s always the red wire. It’s never the yellow wire. Never the green wire. Always the damn red wire. Just once, couldn’t it be the purple wire?) right before the countdown hits zero. When all hope is lost, something happens; your hero pulls the Deus Ex card (don’t make it a cheat, please. If you just save them miraculously with a hitherto-unknown person, idea, or thingy, you’ve taken the easy way out) and ta da! Victory! Crisis averted. Cue the parade, the medals, and the love interest swooning lovingly into their arms.
Nothing wrong with the classics. But.
Do you want to take a character to the next level? You want your STORY to go next-level? Here’s a suggestion: figure out what your character has to lose, and rip it away. Have them lose. Have them fail. Not just fake-fail, but really, truly fail-fail. Rock-bottom your character. Rip away every support. Let the villain win. Let people die. Let someone who really counted on your hero die a horrific death. Beat your character into total submission. Something completely unwinnable. Something gun-to-the-temple awful.
If you’ve done your job, your reader will already be invested in your character. And better, they won’t be expecting a real loss, a real tragedy or a real heartbreak. They’ll bleed with your character. They’ll hurt, and wallow with your character.
Let your character lose everything. Everything. Take something away permanently. If you utterly destroy your character, you’ll see what they’re made of. You’ll see them rise up. You’ll see them become a little dark. A little dirty. But more determined.
It’s in our nature as people to want to kill, crush, and destroy that which attempts to bury us. It’s that survival mechanism that keeps us fighting tooth and nail right up to the moment our hearts stop beating. It’s the reason so many people win out against insurmountable odds. There’s something deep in humanity that makes us decide that screw it, it doesn’t matter we’re outnumbered. That we’re outgunned. That we’ve already lost. We won’t accept it. We will NOT go quietly into that good night. Not quietly, gently, or easily.
If you’ve done your job as a writer, you’re not manipulating a cardboard cutout. Your character, your hero, is a living, breathing person with their own mind and soul. It doesn’t matter that they have no body. They live and breathe. They feel. They think. What matters is what they truly are. And what they truly are is what WE are. Unkillable.
If you destroy a character utterly with a permanent, soul-crushing loss, you’re going to see something amazing. You’re going to see deep steel. You’re going to see a character who is completely unstoppable. Completely intractable. Utterly ferocious and fanatical in their desire to win against every possible enemy.
As a wise (and deranged) man once said, “It’s only when we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.”
You take everything from your character and you’re going to have something amazing on your hands. Break your character into pieces, douse them with gasoline, and light that thing on fire. And THEN, see what rises from the ashes. Your readers will be right there.