Lake Atitlan, Panajachel, Guatemala

Monday, February 15, 2010

What's at stake here?

We have to write our characters so well that when the stakes are revealed/understood/hinted at, the reader cares. And cares enough to keep reading. Ever toss a book aside because the author didn't make you care enough about the main character to keep reading once the stakes were revealed? That's usually when I would scream in jealous derision, "And why was this crap even published!? I can write better than this! Why aren't I published? Why is this stupid book published and not mine?!" Well, anyway, you get the point. People have to care about the characters.

All this is established in your set up. If you fail, you will lose your reader. You won't get published. Your manuscript will be rejected before it even has a chance to become a book that annoys a frustrated reader who checked it out of the library thinking it might be good. So that's what's at stake for us writers. Now what's at stake for our characters?

Larry Brooks at lists five missions for part 1:

1. A killer hook (most agree it needs to be your first sentence)

2. Introducing your hero. This is where we get to know the characters enough to care what happens to them.

3. Revealing Stakes. May be done subtly and gently in a character-driven novel, or whammo-all at once in a plot-driven novel. Either way, it boils down to this-- what have your characters got to lose?

4. Foreshadowing. Where we hint at things to come. Foreshadowing is incredible when it flows into place, annoying when it's contrived. So be careful with this one! Don't force it, let it come to you and reveal itself naturally. Once you notice what's there, you can make the most of it. Like in my hook where I talked about the baby's eyes not focusing, and one of you insightful, super-intelligent commenters said, "foreshadowing of things to come perhaps?" Yes, yes, yes! That was brilliant, and I didn't even do it on purpose!

5. Preparing to launch. Preparing for the plot points, the twists and turns, further character development and all the later elements of story structure beyond Part 1. (Not sure if I'll keep posting about structure beyond Part 1. This is exhausting. Although explaining it all in my blog does help me understand it better, so maybe I will, for purely selfish reasons.)

So back to #3 Revealing Stakes. In a plot-driven novel with life & death scenarios, an evil villain, and worlds that need saving, stakes are fairly obvious. In a character-driven novel, like what I write, it's more subtle. First my characters are revealed, (hopefully in an intriguing and fascinating way of course), and as they are, certain elements come into play.

Like, what are my characters' inner demons? Backstory? Attitudes, prejudices, fears? What defines these people? Their strengths and weaknesses? And finally, what's at stake for them? What have they got to gain or to lose as the story unfolds?

If I create believable characters worth caring about, and give them tangible stakes also worth caring about, then I'm on my way. It all has to be vital enough to keep people reading, to make my reader care. Otherwise, what's the point?


  1. Hi

    The Secret History by Donna Tart. I absolutely detested the characters - particulary the four friends who commit the crime. They were shallow, vain, spoilt, spoilt, spoilt. None of them had any redeeming qualities, no vulnerabilities, nothing for me to feel a tiny bit of sympathy for them. Oh good grief I hated them. But I always, always try and finish novels I start reading and this just left me with a very bad taste in my mouth when I got to the end. I actually went "good!" when all goes horribly wrong for them.

    Unfortunately although the characters were loathsome to me, this was a best-selling novel and so I'm probably in the minority here! It put me off any of her books - so you are so right about creating characters a reader would relate to. When I do find one where I am totally involved in their lives, I tend to stick to the same author and get their subsequent books.

    Oh another one was Sophie's World. Am I the only one who thinks her relationship with Alberto a bit.. oooh creepy?

    Take care


  2. You have touched on the exact thing I've been mulling over as I work my first draft. I can feel that my characters need to be strengthened. And sometimes I've taken something away before I realized just how much a character cares about it, so I need to go back and establish this as a stake for the character.

    I feel like I'm orchestrating a symphony. Maybe there are the Mozarts and Beethovens out there who can think about all the elements at one time, but I'm not one of them. My biggest flaw with my last novel was my plot, so now I'm going overboard with Brooks' story structures and am hyper active about the plot to hopefully make it my strength. But I HATE stories in which I can't care about the characters. I liked Kitty's comment. Glad to know that about those books!

    But, one of these, I'm going to write a book where I think--ooh, these characters are so empathetic AND wow, I have a great plot!! As of now, I'll have to go back over it in layers.

    Ah, the things we are learning!! I just love all aspects of this craft!!

  3. And the tricky thing about doing this is making sure the stakes don't seem contrived. Luckily, this particular stake is something that we all naturally hold dear, not something irrelevant, like rollers.

    And thus the ongoing battle of literary and commercial fiction. I know you say your favorite is literary. My favorite is a balance of the two. I love the bum buster edge of your seat stuff but I gotta care about the characters.

  4. Since I'm not yet published, but have been trying, I must be failing on one or more of these set ups. Your list is helpful in pointing out the important elements.

    I feel disheartened when I read a book that isn't up to snuff. Of course, I believe that my manuscripts are better. Mary at KitLit asserts that marketability and quality aren't always the same thing. You can check out my post lamenting mediocre books:

  5. Characters are all-important. Without ones you care about, why read? Good post.

    I have an award for you at my blog.

  6. Old Kitty, it's books like these that used to drive me insane with jealousy. Now I'm more philosophical about it. Oh well.

    Mary, what we need is an intensely likable character saving the world!

    Theresa, I'm glad this is helpful. You can follow the link to and get more good stuff.

    Carol, thanks for the award! I went to your blog and checked out some of the others you gave it to. Some pretty cool blogs!

  7. "It all has to be vital enough to keep people reading, to make my reader care. Otherwise, what's the point?"

    Ahhhh, what is the point of picking up a book in the first place?

    We, as readers, seek living in the skin of others, and having experiences beyond our own. Reading expands our level of experience without leaving the living room.

    Isn't it wonderful?

  8. Enjoyed the tips. I always like it when info is presented in a concise manner and I don't have to read through paragraph after paragraph to get the point. I will come back to read your series on structure.

  9. Ah, there's the rub: we must create characters that people will root for! I'm in the throes of revision myself so this element is one that I'm struggling to maintain. I know I care enough about the characters to finish their story (again). I only hope that by the time I am done and ready to submit, that others will agree.

  10. This is exactly the point, if your characters are real, with real strengths and real weaknesses then people will care. I try to remember what's important to each character and how each would attain their goals. Some have more morals than others, but then, they're only human!

  11. We read for so many reasons-- escapism, to learn about things different from ourselves, to connect with those similar to ourselves. There's so many books out there. Isn't it wonderful?

    Just reading this post and these comments makes me want to forget the rest of the day and curl up with a cup of chamomile and a box of graham crackers, get crumbs all over myself while completely losing myself in a great story.

  12. Kristine, that sounds wonderful! Me, too!

    Elspeth, interesting how fictional characters can often be more real to us than the people we see every day. That combination of strengths & weaknesses is a crucial element. What bugs me in a story is when characters are either too good, or too bad. That's not real.

    Christine, revisions are the best, because that's when we can go back and fine tune everything, and make the characters amazing by adding those crucial details that make all the difference.

    Maryann, thanks for visiting my blog! I'm glad you like it! although some of my posts can get pretty wordy and paragraph-y.

    L.A., books are the best!! I can't even imagine life without them.

  13. I read a book last summer that just made me cross. I hated the characters. It was a self indulgent book. I would not allow myself to cast it aside. When I read the last sentence I flung it across the room. Releasing my pent up frustration. Thank you for the tips. I am writing something at the moment and hope I can apply your points.

  14. Ann, that's so funny that you threw it across the room.

  15. Having read and read and read and never written anything more than research papers, I find it so interesting to read all these writers blogs and see what goes into the books that I so enjoy. I am becoming a smarter reader, noticing more than plot (which is what I read for). I will continue to read a poorly written book just to see the ending, but I am starting to see why it is poorly written instead of just being bored through the middle and wondering if I should just read the last chapter and put myself out of my misery.....Can I win an award for longest sentance? Sorry you had to suffer through that, but now I am done.

  16. Karen, thank you for coming to my blog and so making the connection! This is so interesting! Yes, definitely, I`ve got to like or at least care for the main character (and hopefully some others, too). Somehow I want to creep into this other person`s life, ponder their choices, shudder at their adventures, smile or laugh at their funny encounters, and in the end I want to be sorry it`s over. If you can`t achieve that, leave me alone!
    Great blog! And thanks, Carol, for bringing your co-awardees together! Now I`ll look up the other ones! And try to find those seven things to share about me, oh my.

  17. So true! Excellent post - and a timely reminder to me on what to concentrate on!