One way to write exciting fiction is to put your protagonist through hell, so that he or she can be redeemed, enlightened, or transformed by their experiences at the end of the story. This is known as the “hero’s journey.” Every hero from Hercules to Harry Potter is written this way, so that’s what I decided to do with the lead character in my latest novel: Joe Healy, Uber Driver to the Stars.
I’ve run into a huge problem, though. To wit, Joe can barely survive fifteen or twenty pages before he dies.
Joe’s passion is Hollywood celebrities, so he roams the streets of Tinseltown waiting for famous people to call him for a ride on his iPhone. Not many famous people use Uber, though, so he has a lot of time to think—about life, love, sports, and puppies. He loves puppies.
The first time Joe died, he had just received an Uber request from Lindsay Lohan, and was on his way to pick her up, when a Corgi puppy ran into the street and he swerved to avoid hitting it. Instead, he smashed his Ford Focus into a light pole. He survived the crash, and the puppy lived—but, in an unlucky turn, Joe got suffocated by his airbag. Story over.
I thought this was a one-time thing, but the next time I wrote about Joe I scrapped the puppy love and gave him a harder edge, a chip on his shoulder about being a lowly Uber driver for celebrities. He answered a call, and when he arrived, John Travolta jumped into the back seat of his car. Travolta picked up on Joe’s hostility right away, and immediately started lecturing Joe about how it was his fault he didn’t have a better job, how he needed to take responsibility for his failures, and how if he just dedicated his life to Scientology, Joe could chart his own destiny in life. That sounded pretty good to Joe—but just as he was about to ask Travolta a question, Travolta pulled out a .357 Magnum and shot Joe in the head. For no reason! Then what does Travolta do? He hops into the front seat, kicks Joe’s body out into the street, and steals his car.
What are the odds?
Frustrated, and eager to keep Joe alive for more than twenty pages, I wrote a new beginning that had him picking up Jennifer Lawrence, on whom he has a monster crush. During the ride, Jennifer and Joe hit it off so well that she decides to abandon her plans and take Joe back to her place to have some hungry sex with a “normal” guy. As it turns out, though, it’s Ms. Lawrence who isn’t normal. She is way into S&M, and—I never saw this coming—accidently choked Joe to death with a ball gag. The poor guy hadn’t been in her house more than half an hour when J-Law was on the phone to her fixer arranging to have Joe’s body dumped a couple of miles offshore.
I know: shocking.
I began to feel sorry for Joe, so I decided that he needed to have a superpower in order to survive. Communication is important for an Uber driver, so the superpower I gave Joe was the ability to tell what celebrities were thinking mere seconds after they said it.
Armed with this power, I sent Joe out into the streets of Hollywood to await a call. It didn’t take long. The icon on his phone blinked that an unnamed someone needed to be picked up outside a nightclub on Rodeo Drive. The passengers, as it turned out, were none other than legendary rocker Prince and his bodyguard, Cheetoh.
Unfortunately, Joe was only twenty-eight years old and did not recognize Prince. And Prince, being Prince, didn’t say anything during the ride, so Joe’s superpower was useless. Prince did not appreciate going unrecognized by a member of the general public, and instructed Cheetoh to instruct Joe to keep driving around the city until he deduced the true identity of the legend in his back seat. Two tanks of gas and fourteen hours later, Joe was still stumped, so Prince ordered his bodyguard to snap Joe’s neck and dump his body in the back lot at Disneyland.
Joe lived to page nineteen that time, but only because of a traffic jam on the 805.
So, as you can see, keeping Joe alive is an enormous challenge. This is supposed to be a three-hundred-page novel, and Joe is supposed to endure all sorts of humiliations and outrages so that, in the end, he can realize that celebrities are just jerks with a lot of money and fame and creepily white teeth. He’s also supposed to end up marrying Jennifer Lawrence, but I ask you: How can I possibly do that to the man now that I know what a deviant person she really is?
So, what to do?
As the writer of Joe’s character, I know I need to find a way to improve his luck and keep him alive. But part of me feels bad about that, because my only purpose in keeping him alive is to put him through holy hell. I mean, I’ve got a whole list of things I want Joe to endure— waterboarding, amputation, drug overdose, beatings, homelessness, toothaches, dry skin, peanut allergy, impotence, diarrhea, shingles, chemical burns, lost cellphone service, poor customer ratings—so that he can learn valuable lessons about himself and the world. But is it fair to drag someone through the mud for hundreds of pages when you have a hose in your hand the whole time? It seems cruel. If I’m honest with myself, I can see that the way things are going, it’s unlikely Joe will survive everything I have in store for him. So in a way, isn’t killing him off early the humane thing to do? Maybe even the right thing?
As a writer, one has to consider such questions thoroughly. Unless I can keep Joe alive, for instance, I may have to abandon the idea that his character can sustain an entire novel, let alone the twelve-volume series I had planned for him. If he can’t live past page twenty, he may just be the lead character in a short story—another great and fascinating hero whose tragic death at such a young age robs humanity of his shining light.
I’m not yet ready to give up on Joe, though. For one thing, it’s not his fault. The celebrities who use Uber appear to be a particularly ruthless and violent bunch. If Joe can just find some nice celebrities in Hollywood, his chances of surviving will be much higher. Then again, if he can be killed by a puppy, I don’t know how he’s going to handle picking up Kiefer Sutherland and suddenly having battery cables attached to his testicles.
Maybe I can warn Joe. Maybe Kiefer won’t suddenly turn into Jack Bauer. Maybe Joe will pick up Donald Sutherland instead. I don’t know. All I know is that I’ve never had this much trouble keeping a character alive. The hero’s journey is never easy, but it should be easier than this.