When a writer identifies with a character, especially with a protagonist who stands in for him/herself, the tendency is to protect the character in the same way that one protects one's self. The readers (like the writer) don't really know what's wrong but they sense that nothing really bad will happen to this character. The result: no dramatic tension in the story, a situation that usually leads to boredom in readers and a sense of unease in the writer that he is not doing his best work.
When I call attention to this problem with students they often go the other way and inflict terrible psychological pain on their protagonists, or even kill them off. But it's not what the author does to the character; it's a feeling he must convey in the fiction that the character will succumb to the fate of the story. That could well be a happy ending. Just what is this feeling that must inhabit the fiction? It's that feeling of the unknown and the uncanny that haunts us all at one time or another. The only way to create this condition in your fiction is tell your protagonist that you don't love him, that he has make his way in the story without your protection.
The reverse is also true. Writers will often punish certain characters who they believe deserve punishment because those characters resemble someone who has hurt them in their own lives. The solution to this problem is in point of view. The writer must inhabit the mind and soul of the antagonist, as well as the protagonist, indeed all the characters, and see the world as they see it, even if that worldview never actually makes it on the page. The writer must always know more than the readers. It's the only way you can gain their respect.
So much of good fiction writing is like good acting. It requires the writer to get into the emotions of his characters, to feel with them (as well as with real people), to empathize with the terrible predicaments of human life. You love your characters, you just can't protect them. The writer is like a dead parent whose ghost follows his children's actions, loves them and feels with them, but cannot act on their behalf in the material world.
Hebert lives in New Hampshire and teaches writing at Dartmouth College. His novels include The Old American and the acclaimed six-volume Darby series. Godine will publish his forthcoming novel, Never Back Down, in June 2011.