When the hero has lost everything. When the villain has temporarily triumphed, with nothing left to stop him. When the apocalypse has arrived. Most stories have that moment. That darkest hour.
The importance of losing everything
Think of any action television show – as the season comes to a close, the hero is often close to losing everything. The end of the second season of Buffy is a great example – she’s been kicked out of home, kicked out of school, and the love of her life, Angel, is evil and has begun to unleash hell on earth.
When the climax of your story draws nearer, it’s time for your hero to fail. He needs to lose, at least for part of the story. He needs to know the depths of his darkest hour.
1. The hero’s darkest hour allows time for reflection, for both the hero, and the reader
If you watch the audio commentary for How to Train Your Dragon, the creators admit that they had skipped that darkest hour, where Hiccup mourns Toothless after he's captured and taken away. Instead, they had Hiccup immediately jumping up, ready to get back into fight. The creators realised this was a mistake – that moment of reflection was needed. They let Hiccup experience the impact of his loss, let him feel hopeless. It’s a time all of us go through in life, and it’s an important progression in the story.
When the hero endures the worst of the worst, readers learn from his strength. They follow him to his darkest hour, and celebrate his glory when he finds his way back. If you’re looking for a reader who will truly love rereading your book, give them inspiration by slamming your hero to rock bottom and let him climb back up again.
2. The harder you fall, the higher you climb
You only need to watch J.K. Rowling’s speech on failure to understand that. When you strip a character down to the barest essentials, you’re left with his true nature. When your hero has nothing left, it’s this moment that defines him. It gives readers an insight into his spirit, his strength, and his endurance. Kill his family, turn his friends against him, let his arch nemesis triumph, and see what he does. Give him the greatest obstacles of all to overcome, and show your readers why he is the hero.
Rising from the ashes
Getting your hero out of his darkest hour is not easy. Usually he’s caught in a moment of self-doubt, and it’s not believable for him to just flick a mental switch and come at the problem again with newfound determination.
Sometimes a secondary character needs to come in and slap some sense into him. Choose that secondary character wisely. Who would be the most surprising character to help your hero in a time of need? Could it be someone who’s been a pain for the protagonist in the past? Could it be someone who used to be a threat, but has decided to work together with the protagonist against a common enemy? Could it be someone the hero had previously written off as useless?
Sometimes, however, the hero is alone in this moment of need. He must find an inner strength, but it takes a motivating factor to get him to move. Perhaps he solves a riddle or figures out a weak point that will help take down the villain. Perhaps he realises what more he might lose if he lets the villain win. Perhaps he needs that moment when he can choose to give up and die, but instead hauls himself to his feet.
Let’s go back to the scenario in Buffy. She’s lost almost everything. Angel is about to kill her, and asks (more or less) what she has left. He tries to impale her with his sword, and at the last second, she slams her hands together to stop the blade, and answers, “Me.” Who wouldn’t root for a character like that?
What are some of your favourite stories with a darkest hour? Did you find yourself rooting for the protagonist more because they struggled up from rock bottom?
How would your story differ if the villain took control, and the protagonist experienced that darkest hour?