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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.


3 comments:

  1. I just discovered your site, but wish I had years ago. As a reader, I love a character I can relate to, who feel ...act ...and think like a real person. Life is flawed and wonderful, exciting and disastrous...sometimes all at once. I've tried to portray character who are believable in my writing and it is encouraging to see views that appreciate true life drama.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I just discovered your site, but wish I had years ago. As a reader, I love a character I can relate to, who feel ...act ...and think like a real person. Life is flawed and wonderful, exciting and disastrous...sometimes all at once. I've tried to portray character who are believable in my writing and it is encouraging to see views that appreciate true life drama.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I think one of the best things we can do is write characters we like to read. So glad you can relate as well! Thanks for checking us out! --Jen

    ReplyDelete