So far in this series we’ve looked at what a character wants and who’s getting in the way. Another important element to consider is what’s at stake.
This is something most writers have a fairly good grasp of. If a character has something to lose then they are more likely to get up off the sofa and do something about it. If it’s really important to them they might even take a few risks.
But that isn’t what this post is about.
As well as the big important thing that comes to mind when thinking of the premise (winning the girl, saving the planet, finding the treasure), a story is made up of lots of little consequences and repercussions.
While these smaller threats and risks will be of varying levels (falling off a ledge to being late for a date to eating another doughnut) what very often happens is that although failure carries a penalty the character very much doesn’t want to pay, the character never actually fails.
The writer wants to raise the tension, create some suspense or a sense of urgency, so they raise the stakes. Which is a good idea. If they don’t make it across town at rush hour the puppies will all die or the wedding dress will get sold to someone else or whatever.
The character frets about it, emotes, takes ridiculous risks, and then manages to do what needs to be done and the consequences never materialise.
A skilful writer can hover on the edge of failure so the tension and dread are almost as bad as the thing being dreaded. But if this pattern is repeated too often, the reader will start seeing the character as having something of a charmed life and good luck fatigue can set in.
A character needs stakes in every part of a story. Every action should have consequences, some of which should be quite painful and the character should very much try to avoid them. And you, as the writer, should not allow this.
Because there are a variety of very useful storytelling devices that you gain from allowing your characters to screw up and suffer the consequences. Not nearly suffer. Not a close shave. Actually happen.
I’m not talking about character building and growth through adversity, although those things also result from hardship.
My point is that although you have chosen this character to be the star of your story, the reader has no real reason to root for your choice. A guy wants the girl of his dreams; a girl wants a promotion at work; a scientist want to be first to invent a time machine.
So what? He’ll meet someone else; she’ll get another job; I’m not sure ‘first’ is really a viable concept when it comes to time machines since you can always go back and change history, but anyway, so another scientist makes the discovery. Life goes on (although not necessarily in the same order as before).
However, once you have a character fail and then get up and try again, they become a much more integrated part of the story. It isn’t just an arbitrary goal, it’s cost them something and in order to redress the balance certain actions need to be taken.By them.
Only this person can be the heart of the story because only this person has suffered to be here.
It doesn’t just have to be straight up failure leading to terrible loss. A character can get what they were aiming for and still suffer as a result, either through unintended consequences or sacrifice. If a guy gets the job he always wanted and discovers he’s being relocated to Antarctica, or in order to save the Earth from an asteroid Australia has to be destroyed, then a win can be a loss.
It can be difficult for some writer to allow this kind of punishment on a favourite character, but it should be remembered they can still win in the long run, so it’s not like you’re hanging them out to dry.
If Tony wants to ask Jill out on a date but is afraid of the embarrassment if she says no, then when he finally builds up the courage to ask she should definitely say no. In fact it should be even worse than he feared.
The writer likes Tony. They want him to get what he wants. But you have to remember this is one step on Tony’s journey. At some point he may well get to date Jill. Or maybe someone infinitely better than Jill.
In order to become the person who succeeds, you first have to know what it is to be the person who fails. Not from the sidelines, up close and personal. All those consequences should be faced. What’s at stake should be lost.
Then two things can happen. Either Tony gives up and you don’t have a story, or Tony finds a way to move forward. And it’s in this change that you will have your reason for why it’s this character’s story that’s being told.
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As summer is here (sort of) I'll be reducing my posts to once a week so I can work on my tan. See you next Monday.