Raise the Stakes

Jen here:

I’ve been talking about creating memorable characters. They are the most important elements in your story. You can get away with sloppy writing and a boring plot if your readers love your characters and will keep reading to see what happens to them.

Last time we talked about what your characters’ internal and external motivations are and how that helps you craft your plot. Once you have a good understanding of that, the next step is to raise the stakes. Turn up the heat. Make things uncomfortable for your hero. Make it so that if he fails, the results are disastrous.

Why do we torture our beloved characters so? Because the readers like it. I know, it sounds mean. But a well-crafted story engages your readers at an emotional level. And what better way to get someone emotionally engaged then to put someone they like through some drama.

James Scott Bell says in his book, Plot and Structure, the four dynamics to bond with the reader are identification, sympathy, likeability, and inner conflict. The Lead needs to appear to be a real human being by trying to make it in the world, is a little fearful at times, and is not perfect. He goes on to say there are several ways to create sympathy in a reader: putting your Lead in jeopardy (a given in a suspense!), letting them have some kind of misfortune that seems impossible to overcome, making them an underdog (especially in suspense where you can use a fairy tale model like Cinderella), and making them vulnerable.

So here are some ideas on how to do that.

What Are You Afraid Of?
Fear is a powerful motivator. It can make people do things they otherwise wouldn’t do. It can make them go to great lengths to avoid doing things they fear. What do they fear?

Fear can take many shapes. It can be a phobia like being afraid of heights or dogs. It can be fear of someone discovering a secret. It can be the fear of pain or the fear of change.

Your characters, whether they like it or not, will have to change. They need to be different in someway at the end of the book than they were in the beginning. And as is typical in human nature, we are resistant to change. The pain of staying the same has to become greater than the pain of changing.

A couple of writers have some fun takes on this. One asks, in what ways do your characters try to cheat to achieve their internal goals? In other words, they try to get their goals without going through all the pain and growth. They try to take short cuts. And they just make everything worse.

In my historical, The Road Home (Tandem Services Press, April 2016), the heroine, Emily, tries to cover up her past when it comes back to haunt her, instead of just confessing what happened to her close friends. She thinks she is achieving her goal of acceptance by covering up her past. But, you guessed it, she gets found out and now her friends feel lied to and betrayed. The very actions she tried to use to achieve her goal backfired.

Another writer says he likes it when things get worse because the hero tried to fix the first problem. Instead of fixing it, he makes it worse.

Ask Me Another
Here are a few questions to get your creative juices flowing if the above ideas didn’t trigger any fun and new ways to get your heroine into trouble.

What’s the best thing that can happen to her?
What’s the worst?
What decision does she have to make?
What does she have to lose?
What does he have to gain? (The stakes have to be high enough for us to care.)
What needs to change about him? Where does he need to grow? What’s his blind spot?
What does he miss by not changing?
What event forces him to change or to choose to change?
What’s the secret he doesn’t want anyone to know?

Thinking about ways to torment your characters will create memorable characters and a book that readers just can’t put down.

Creating Characters from Real life

Writing fictional characters takes imagination and time.

There is a way to speed up this process and make your character feel real enough to touch, but you have to be brave.

It’s a time-honored tradition to make character charts and fill them in with everything from favorite food to worst childhood memory. It’s something I’ve done, but have found the method lacks the warmth of a real human.

Kara’s blue eyes sparkled as she picked her favorite ice cream, strawberry. She hoped she wouldn’t getting any of it on her classic car seat. A memory from when she was five and dropped her cone on her father’s sedan seat almost choked her.

Terrible writing!!! You can say that, as it’s meant to be terrible. But does this character have any hope of being real? Probably, but I can speed up the process if I model her after someone I know. I would never pick one person and use them only, but maybe two people that have interesting quirks would perk up this droopy Kara.

Let’s see what happens when I add one trait.

Kara held her favorite ice cream, strawberry, in her hand. Too bad she wouldn’t be able to eat it now that she’d been diagnosed as lactose intolerant. But she could smell it. She inhaled and the fruity scent tickled the back of her throat. Maybe if she took one tiny bite it wouldn’t hurt.

Her little brother waited in the car. Would he notice? Yes, probably. Worse though, if she ate it and had a reaction, explaining the condition of the driver’s seat to her father could be worse than the diarrhea attack.

Again, not the best writing but it works for this blog

Now we have a Kara with a problem, one that one of my friends has but my friend wouldn’t be angry because millions (I’m guessing on that number!) are lactose intolerant. She would relate to this character but not see herself. Sometimes, she will give in and have a bite of ice cream, and she pays for it.

We can take this further by twisting this with another trait from a different friend.

Kara held her favorite ice cream, strawberry, in her hand. Too bad she wouldn’t be able to eat it now that she’d been diagnosed as lactose intolerant. 

But she could smell it. She inhaled.The fruity smell tickled the back of her throat. Maybe if she took one tiny bite it wouldn’t hurt.

Her little brother waited in the car. Would he notice? Yes, probably. Worse though if she ate it and had a reaction right away, explaining the condition of the driver’s seat to her father would be worse than the diarrhea attack.

“Here you go, Trav. Enjoy. Someday you might not be able to eat this stuff.” She handed it to him through the open window.

She couldn’t have ice cream so she’d substitute the need for comfort with a pair of new shoes, right after she dropped her brother off at home and picked up her own wheels.

Okay, now we have a lactose intolerant shoeaholic. I wonder what she drives. It must be fast because she calls it wheels instead of a car. I’ve used two traits from different people and neither of my friends would know I’m modeling a character after them.

So when you get stuck and those character sheets aren’t helping you, look to those around you. 

Start now by making a list of interesting traits in people you see every week. 

Make sure you mix things up and you’ll never get caught. Trust me! Your friends and family are looking for themselves in your work.


The techie overview of podcasting basics

Angie here with the techie overview of podcasting basics to show you an idea of the process to creating a show.

Grace Under Pressure Radio

You may remember I started Grace Under Pressure Radio in August 2015. My expertise is in coaching confidence in my clients, listeners, and audiences. So I'm not the foremost expert in podcasting. My goal isn't to be the best techie expert. My goal is to share my message through the books I write and the words I say. But if you're interested in podcasting, you'll have to know the overview and then get educated on the bits and pieces. The good news is you can. But like anything that has value, it's an investment in time and education to get a working knowledge. Then proficiency comes with on-the-job experience. The other good news is that you can get the education, with a small effort, for free to low-cost.

An overview of podcasting tasks:

I have a macbook pro and record in Garage Band, and edit there for now, too. Then I share to my iTunes account on my own computer. Then I open ID3 Tag Editor (bought for $15) and add a bunch of meta tagging. I save that and upload to Libsyn.com (chosen over blubrry because the options fit my future needs) to the "download only" content setting because I'm just storing the show there, not using Libsyn to publish to podcast directories. I open my website to the blog that's been preset for audio and RSS feed with the Power Press widget. Load, copy/paste show notes, copy/paste published file link from Libsyn, then publish that blog post.

The critical 4 actions we need listeners to do to keep our podcasts out in front so people can find them.

I created 3 posts before applying to iTunes to be in the podcasting directory. All the experts say that gives new listeners the ability to listen, subscribe, rate, and review. (So if you would, may I ask you to do those for Grace Under Pressure Radio? And then refer any friends you think might like to become a woman of courage, confidence, and candor, too.) 

Instructions to Leave an iTunes Rating and Review

  • Click here for: Grace Under Pressure Radio on iTunes
  • That should automatically direct you to Writers & Authors on Fire podcast page
  • Click “Ratings and Reviews”
  • Click “Write A Review”
  • Enter Your iTunes info
  • Click a rating, leave a review, then click “Send” (If inspired, please consider giving us 5 stars)
  • Thank You. Your support is appreciated.

RSS feeds:

iTunes took about a week and a half to approve. It can happen in hours or weeks. I had my webmaster create a special RSS feed, that I own, built into my website in the background FTP editor so when Power Press (actually a Blubrry widget for Wordpress) works with my published post, it sends directly to iTunes. It's important to use your own RSS feed so businesses that offer it don't hijack your listener list should you want to change platforms. Yep, there's details. But that's the overview. And I do have a lot to learn still. 

How do you get the knowledge?

I took classes on it. One on CreativeLive.com and I've watched videos and listened to The Podcast Answer Man as well as the Audacity to Podcast. I spent $15 on the ID3 tag editor, $60-ish on mic equipment bought on Amazon (More details in another blog post, but the ATR-2100 Cartoid USB is the one I have now), and Libsyn.com needs the $15/month subscription because there isn't enough storage otherwise. My show is 30 min. long. (I haven't yet learned to make the file smaller than 12-14 MB, though I've tried lowering the VBR quality. I can go down to med-low setting without losing vocal quality.) I have a friend who uses Dropbox but the experts say not to. 

Another important element to growing podcast skill is listening to those who have it. I subscribe to a lot of podcasts on podcasting, writing, and screenwriting because those are all the areas I want to continue growing in. I love cutting my effort by 2-3X when a podcast is teaching me writing/screenwriting/podcasting all at once, don't you? It's just smart workflow :)

Here's some of my favorite podcasts right now that combine the educational benefits:

Writers and Authors on Fire with John VonHof