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Why stakes work

Sure, the view is great, but why would anybody go to all the bother of building a castle up there? Can you imagine how long it must have taken to haul all those stone blocks up the mountain on donkey carts or whatever? I mean, seriously—put an observation deck up there and build a staircase if you want the view, but why build a whole castle up there? Must have cost a fortune!

No doubt it did. So why do it? Why build a mountaintop castle there in picturesque San Marino, and why do it on hundreds of other peaks scattered across Europe? Why not build your castle somewhere more convenient?

Because what’s mine is mine

There’s one simple reason. Defense. Mountaintop fortresses are much harder to conquer than fortresses down on the flats, which if you’re considering where to build your castle during medieval Europe, when the wars never ceased and national borders shifted faster than mapmakers could keep up, is a major selling point.

Trust me, we’ll see what this has to do with the stakes in our novels in a minute. The point is, build your stronghold on a mountaintop, collect all your wealth (what’s left after building the castle, anyway) and power there, and you’re much more likely to keep somebody from taking it away from you.

Gain versus loss

What’s mine is mine, so the saying goes, and what’s true for kings is true for commoners: people will generally put a lot more effort into keeping what they have than in obtaining something they don’t have. Behavioral economists call this “divestiture aversion” or alternately “the endowment effect,” although I quite prefer the latter for its obvious double-entendre possibilities. I swear. Only a bunch of behavioral economists could suggest a name like that with a straight face.

Anyway.

The endowment effect can play out in grandiose castles or in more subtle ways. British traffic enforcement assigns you “penalty points” when you get caught speeding and so forth. But the Italians do it the other way around: they start you out with 12 points and take them away for traffic infractions, because subconsciously the urge to preserve your points is a stronger motivator to follow the rules.

Why does it work?

I can’t say for sure why people act this way, but intuitively, we understand that they do. Our language even reflects it through phrases such as “what’s mine is mine,” and its implied counterpart “don’t you dare try to take it.”

Personally, I think it has to do with emotional attachment. We become attached to the things we have. Material things—stuff we have earned by the sweat of our brow, things we have been given by loved ones, or simply things we’ve had for so long they become part of the fabric of our lives. Abstract things—our sense of identity, legal and political freedoms, our physical abilities. And of course, other people through their relationships to us.

Put in slightly different terms, if you break the “World’s Greatest Dad” coffee mug my kids gave me, it isn’t sufficient recompense to buy me an identical mug. You can’t replace the emotional attachment I had to the original mug. Although the two mugs may be identical, the one my kids gave me has a higher value to me, because of the emotional attachment, than a new one fresh from the store.

If someone cares to do some MRI scans or something, I’d almost bet money that this effect stems from the more ancient parts of our brains, the ones that are also responsible for parenting instincts. The instinct to value our children more highly than anything else and protect them even up to our own deaths is deeply rooted in biology and survival of the species. To me, it’s not a great stretch to imagine our shiny new neo-cortexes generalizing this parenting instinct towards everything we consider to be ours.

That’s my theory, anyway.

Using the endowment effect in your novels

Ok, here we go, and you’ll be glad you stuck with this article because there’s plenty you can do with it.

Create a strong emotional motivation for action. You ever get stuck in your novel, knowing that a character needs to do something—say, stand up to her heartless and insensitive boss—but you can’t figure out a plausible reason why she’d do it? Use the endowment effect. Link the action you want her to take to the defense of something she owns or hold dear, and you’ve got it. The thing she holds dear becomes additional stakes pushing her towards doing what you need her to do.

For example, maybe your heroine works at an ad agency that’s doing a pro-bono work for a women’s shelter fundraiser. Her boss doesn’t care, since it’s not for a big account client, and wants to simply recycle a similar ad campaign from ten years ago. You need your character to say “No! That’s not good enough. That ad won’t play today and you know it!” But why would she do it?

Let’s go big-stakes: What if her sister’s staying at that shelter, having only narrowly escaped from drug addiction and a violent husband? And what if the shelter is running on a shoestring, and needs a big take from the fundraiser in order to pay off their creditors and stay in operation? If the fundraising campaign fails, your protagonist might lose her sister: the sister would be turned out on the street, and might well slip back into her old life, complete with drugs and abusive husband. Only this time, she might not survive.

Under those circumstances, wouldn’t she fight hard to do whatever she could to keep her sister off the streets? You bet she would. And if that means standing up to her boss and demanding that they put as much effort into the fundraiser promotions as they would for a national brand ad campaign, then by god that’s what she’ll do!

That’s perhaps a melodramatic example, but you get the picture: if inaction threatens to cause the loss of something a character values, the character will be motivated to act. But remember: keep it proportional; in most cases, the lengths someone is willing to go to in order to avoid a loss should be commensurate with the degree of that loss. Readers will believe a parent throwing themselves in front of a train in order to push their child out of the way, but they’ll have much more trouble believing the same action if, say, it were a stray kitten on the tracks. No matter how cute the kitten.

Create a dramatic bluff. If someone is explicitly threatening to visit a loss upon your character, you can ratchet the tension and drama in a scene right up to the roof by having the character proclaim that he doesn’t, in fact, care about whatever’s being threatened. Viewers of Lost will remember the scene where Benjamin Linus claims not to care about the girl some amoral commandos are holding at gunpoint. They make the standard offer: do what we want, or we’ll shoot her. He bluffs: “Go ahead. She means nothing to me.” The girl, of course, is his daughter and in fact means a great deal to him. Instant drama.

Convey the importance of something else. That same scene from Lost achieves another storytelling goal as well: it quite effectively conveys the degree to which Ben values the secrets he is trying to protect. He values them so much he’s willing to put his daughter up as the ante in a very high-stakes bluff. This can work whether the character wins or loses the bluff, but in my opinion it’s more effective if the character loses. Actually suffering the loss of something the character values—being forced to follow through on the sacrifice—will convey the importance of the other thing much more clearly. After all, the deadliest urge a writer can fall prey to is letting your characters off the hook.

Create a believable victory over a stronger opponent. The flip side of the endowment effect is that, all else being equal, if one person is trying to take something belonging to someone else, the attacker’s motivation to follow through will be inherently less than the defender’s motivation to hold onto what they have. That scene from the end of Stand By Me where young Gordie Lachance stands up to the much stronger town bully Ace Merrill is just such a scene. On the surface, the two are vying for the glory of reporting the location of the missing boy’s body to the authorities. That’s all Ace is fighting for. But Gordie is not only fighting for that glory, but also for his own self esteem and the memory of his brother. For Gordie, the emotional attachments pulling on him in that moment are so much stronger than those pulling on Ace, that not only is it totally believable to see Gordie pull a gun on Ace, but also that Ace backs down.

The basis of stakes

Whatever the reason, whether it’s emotion or biology or both, people will fight hard to hold on to what they have and what they value. It’s such a powerful lever controlling the actions our characters that I would argue the endowment effect is in fact the basis underlying the whole concept of stakes in our novels. More writing books than I care to name (E.g. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!) talk about the importance of having compelling stakes in your novel. And well they should. But not a one of them I’ve ever read has stopped to talk about why it is we care about stakes at all.

It’s because of the endowment effect. A novel’s stakes, whatever they are, represent something that is had by the characters, by society, or whoever. The central conflict puts this thing at risk. Thus, characters are motivated to defend it, sometimes even at the cost of their lives.

June 19, 2010 04:21 UTC

Tags: character, endowment effect, stakes, bluff, motivation

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Three steps to a breakout story

Have you ever finished reading a novel only to find yourself standing in awe of the author’s ability to craft a story and portray the characters? Have you found yourself wondering how on earth the author ever managed to work so many great twists and turns, complications and subplots into the story, without having any of it feel extraneous? Have you ever despaired of ever being able to write that well yourself?

Yes? Good. That means you’re at least a savvy enough writer to recognize what you ought to be doing, even if you don’t quite know how to do it yet. That gives you a goal (hey, we need goals as much as our characters do). Speaking of characters and goals, I’m going to help you figure out how to do it by giving you three steps for choosing great goals for your characters that will in turn help you achieve your goals in crafting a stellar story.

1. Pick a compelling goal

Goals matter. And in choosing a goal, you have a bit of a Goldilocks problem in finding a story goal that’s “just right.” One that is significant enough to motivate your protagonist, but isn’t so high-stakes as to be implausible. A babysitter finding herself in a plot where it’s up to her to save the President’s life would challenge all but the most credulous readers. On the flip side, nobody’s going to care about your book if the babysitter’s goal is simply to choose what color nail polish goes best with her prom dress.

Where things go wrong: Most writers don’t err by setting the stakes too low. We hear some variant on “when in doubt, raise the stakes” so often that I think most people know not to do that. Where writers often fail is in picking a high-stakes goal that is only high-stakes externally to the character. The stakes matter to the world at large (i.e., it really is a big deal if someone’s gunning for the President), but the protagonist doesn’t matter to the stakes. The key pitfall is failing to answer the question “why this protagonist?” If you want to have a babysitter save the President’s life, that’s fine, but make sure you have a damn good answer to the question of why it’s her job to do it.

2. Show that the goal is worthy

It isn’t enough for the protagonist to be the only one who can achieve the goal. You may have convinced your protagonist that she’s the only one who can save the cat (or the President), but you still need to prove to the reader that this goal is worth an entire novel.

Where things go wrong: Even the most compelling of external goals can fall flat if you don’t show that the goal matters to the protagonist. At the point where the protagonist is contemplating the goal and whether she should do anything about it, you need to portray and contrast two possible views of the world: one in which the goal is accomplished, and one in which it is not. The babysitter has to see (and we have to see her seeing) how her life would be better in one scenario and worse in the other. Not only must the babysitter matter to the goal of saving the President, it has to matter to her that the President is saved.

3. Go after the goal

Steps 1 and 2 are critical, but only because they set the stage. Step 3 is where all the fun is, where the majority of your storyline takes place, as the protagonist pursues her goal. Here, you want to make use of every piece of advice you’ve ever read about keeping conflict in every scene, using every scene to advance the story, and so forth. But that’s not enough. If your goal is to write a breakout novel at the level of the novels that have knocked your socks off, just following that kind of advice isn’t going to do it.

To knock your readers’ socks off, you have to follow all that advice while keeping everything focused on the protagonist. That doesn’t mean keeping her in every scene. It means giving the protagonist a set of increasingly difficult challenges on the path towards the goal. The moment the Babysitter decides it’s up to her to save the President, the next thing on her mind had better be “ok, what’s the first thing I have to do?” Maybe she needs information. Maybe she needs access to some kind of tools (Babysitter with a sniper rifle!) or resources. Maybe she needs to go somewhere else. The specifics don’t matter, so long as you can find an immediate goal that is in service to her ultimate goal. Then you need another challenge, and another and another.

Where things go wrong: Even the most carefully crafted sequence of challenges and obstacles can end up feeling as boring and downright formulaic as National Treasure if they are all fundamentally external to the protagonist. To really elevate your novel to breakout status (or at least to take some steps in that direction) you need to relate the protagonist’s progress towards the goal to her own character arc.

That is, she must experience some failures along the way, failures caused by her own shortcomings. But let her grow as a person through those experiences, and let that growth give her the keys to achieving her ultimate goal. It’s all well and good for a character to need to acquire some sort of MacGuffin as well, but to be really satisfying, you need personal growth to play a part too. Just like the Harry Potter from Philosopher’s Stone could never have defeated Voldemort while the Harry Potter from Deathly Hallows could, your babysitter needs to experience personal growth that in some manner enables her to save the President.

Make it personal

If you were savvy enough to answer “yes” to the question at the beginning of this article, chances are you’ve noticed the theme behind all three of these steps. At every opportunity, make it personal, in goals, in stakes, and in growth. Don’t just pick compelling goals, make them compelling personal goals. Show us why the babysitter has to be the one to save the President, and also why saving the President matters to her. Then, whenever possible, make the turning points in the story relate to the babysitter’s growth as a person.

That’s it. Three steps to a breakout story, all boiled down to one piece of advice: make it personal. We stand in awe of writers better than ourselves, but there’s no impenetrable magic about what they do. When it comes to writing a breakout story, you can conquer your personal goals by helping your protagonists conquer theirs.

May 17, 2010 22:54 UTC

Tags: character, goals, stakes, character arc, MacGuffin

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How to break the rules of emotional response

This is part six in a five part series (yes, yes, I know) of detailed explorations into the five stages of grief model of emotional response. If you missed the beginning, Part 1 starts here

There’s this saying in fiction that no rules are absolute. You can break any rule, so long as it works. That’s entirely true. Thus, as a little bonus for anybody who had the patience to read the first five parts of my series on the rules of emotional response, I thought it would be fun to explore some of the effects you can achieve by intentionally violating the reader’s expectations about how characters respond.

Violating Denial

The thing about the five stages of grief is that stage 1, denial, always starts with misfortunes that are by definition surprising. They are unexpected events, ones that are usually unpleasant. If they were expected, they wouldn’t be surprising. They would be things that already fit with the character’s view of the world, and so there would be no need for the five stages at all. No surprise, no denial.

So what do you get when you show an unpleasant surprise but no denial? Generally, one of two things. Or both.

One is gullibility. If a character accepts a misfortune too readily, perhaps the character is just a fool who will take anything at face value. This is the effect—an unintentional effect—I most often see in work from my clients who don’t yet have the hang of portraying the five stages of grief. The dynamic in play is that the writer hasn’t sufficiently separated themselves from their characters. To the writer, the misfortune is no surprise at all: the writer knew it was coming all along, because he planned it. Consequently, he has forgotten to let his characters show the surprise he himself isn’t feeling.

That’s how the mistake comes about, but the reader doesn’t care about any of that. To the reader, the lack of surprise from the character simply comes across as a failure of the character’s intellect.

The other effect you can create by violating denial is trust. Trust, if you think about it, is kind of like gullibility. When the unpleasant surprise is a piece of unwanted information that comes from another character rather than from direct experience, the character may skip denial (or may experience it only very briefly) if he has sufficient trust and respect for the messenger.

This type of denial violation is great for showing trust, because it signals to the reader that the character is voluntarily suppressing his own judgment in favor of a judgment made by someone he accepts as smarter, wiser, better informed, or just generally speaking more authoritative than himself.

Violating Anger

After denial comes anger. If you violate a reader’s expectations by skipping the anger, you’re conveying a mental state in your character of “I accept that the misfortune is real, but I’m not going to flip out about it.” That’s fine, but be aware that in doing so you’re going to force your character to ask why. Two things come to mind, one that is temperamental, one situational.

First, it may simply be that your character’s temperament is a highly rational one. Anger rarely helps address a misfortune. It is nearly always wasted effort, in which case why do it? A character who is so rational as to skip over anger will, however, likely also skip over bargaining and depression as well, in order to get down to the business of overcoming the misfortune.

Second, the situation may not permit the luxury of anger, no matter how strongly the character might be inclined to be angry. Take two soldiers, make them the closest of brothers-in-arms, and put them in an intense firefight. Let one man be shot in plain view of the other. Yet, with bullets flying right and left, the man left standing simply has no time for anger. More than anything else, in that moment he needs to keep his head figuratively, in order to keep it literally. At that moment, he doesn’t have the luxury of getting mad (Hollywood portrayals of battle scenes notwithstanding); he needs to focus.

In particularly intense situations, you can use violations of anger to convey the stakes of the situation itself. But note, this doesn’t mean the anger is negated entirely. Rather, it is deferred. That soldier might not get mad in the heat of battle, but later, once he’s back at camp and things have quieted down, that anger’s going to come out. Skip it then, and you risk damaging the reader’s perceptions of the character on a much deeper level. Skip it then, and you’ll portray him as an emotionally cold fish who didn’t really care about his buddy after all.

Violating Bargaining

Let’s say you’ve had denial and anger, but you want to skip the bargaining. What does that get you? That gets you pride, in its many forms. This is a character whose mental state is “I may be upset about this situation, but I’m not gonna beg!”

Again, the question is why? Why not beg? Is it because the character is too proud to ask for help (all too common for men in our society)? Is it because the character is trying to preserve his dignity, and is willing to forego whatever slim chance of success that begging seems to offer (although you who have read the stage 3 article on begging know it’s a false hope) in order to retain the ability to think of himself in positive terms? Or is it a reflection of some kind of self-assurance, in which the character doesn’t even feel an impulse towards begging because he has the inner confidence that he’ll be able to get through it somehow? In that last case, your character is likely to skip depression as well.

The final reason not to beg, and one I talked about in part 3 of this series, is because bargaining often makes no sense. When a misfortune is not attributable to anyone with whom you could try to negotiate, then again, what’s the point? If a tornado is bearing down on your house, there’s not much point in trying to bargain with it to veer left. Situational misfortunes that are simple bad luck, and not caused by the choices of any other entities in the novel, are ones where you can skip the bargaining with no particular adverse consequences to your character.

Violating Depression

What can you do with a character who doesn’t get depressed about his misfortunes? Quite a lot, actually. Skipping the depression can show many different things.

It can show perspective. Most of the time, if you take a mental step back and look at the larger picture of life and what matters, you’ll see that the misfortunes life throws at us don’t really amount to much. If you come out of a restaurant only to find that your car has been stolen, well, that’s a bummer but does it really matter? Sure, you’ll be inconvenienced while your insurance company investigates and finally cuts you a check, but so what? In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter much.

It can show resilience. A character who rolls with the punches may well go through denial, anger, and bargaining, but having exhausted those won’t let himself get down about the situation. He’ll put on a brave face and carry on. What can get interesting for the writer is the distinction between genuine resilience and putting on an act. Is the character truly resilient, or is he putting on an act for the rest of the world’s benefit while inwardly spiraling down into depression?

Finally, there’s a danger involved with skipping the depression stage. You may inadvertently signal a lack of concern about the consequences the misfortune entails. When a misfortune threatens something of value to the character, or constitutes a significant obstacle between the character and his story goals, failing to show any moments of sadness or doomxiety could signal to the reader that the character doesn’t really care about those goals.

Violating Acceptance

Lastly, how can you violate the acceptance stage to your advantage? Remember, when a character emerges from depression into acceptance, that generally signals a shift in the character’s world-view towards a view that encompasses the misfortune and all of its consequences. So what do you get if you show him being done with depression, and yet not moving into acceptance?

You show resolve. The character is saying to himself “you know what? I’m not going to take that. I refuse to let this situation stand. I refuse to accept this as the way the world has to be!”

This can be enormously powerful as a turning point in a novel. You can subject a character to a serious misfortune, and let him fully experience stages 1 through 4. Let him hit wallow in deep blackness of depression and hit an emotional rock bottom. But from there, don’t just let him shrug his shoulders and accept the misfortune as immutable, as how things are. Let him instead emerge from depression in a fighting mood, ready to un-do whatever horrible thing you dumped on him.

Conclusion

BAD HASHThere’s a lot you can do with violations of the five stages of grief. You can, in fact, create some highly memorable characters. Characters like good old Forrest Gump. Forrest is the perfect example, because he pretty much skips the five stages entirely, and that’s what makes him so memorable.

Being not very smart, he doesn’t really do denial. To him, everyone is more authoritative than he is, so he’s accustomed to taking other people’s word on things. Skip the denial in that fashion, and there’s no particular reason to engage in anger, bargaining, or depression. And even though he chucks the whole five stages right out the window, it’s believable to the audience because for Forrest the whole world doesn’t make much more sense than what people tell him, so there’s nothing really to do except get on with things.

So that’s it. My thanks to everyone who stuck with this long series over the past couple of weeks. Go forth and add emotional realism to your characters’ reactions, but don’t be afraid to break the rules. Like they say, you can break any rule so long as it works. My hope is that I’ve been able to shed some light on just a few of the ways you can both use and abuse the rules.

< Back to part 5: Acceptance | Forward to writing better novels!

April 07, 2010 20:39 UTC

Tags: character, emotion, believability, grief, expectations, breaking the rules, gullibility, trust, stakes, pride, dignity, confidence, perspective, resilience, resolve

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The other half of the sympathy equation

In my last post, I discussed why it is important for a novel’s protagonist to not only take actions within the story, but also display believable emotional reactions to the situations you put him in. When you have both, you create a sympathetic character for the reader. Those two elements—action and emotion—create a character readers will inherently want to root for.

In the comments on that post, astute reader Leah Raeder points out that there is more to it than that:

We have to feel like characters can lose something (or have already lost) in order to feel sympathy for them.

She is absolutely right. Her point goes to the question of stakes: what does your character stand to gain or lose in any given scene? Compelling stakes are so powerful in enticing readers to sympathize with a character that they can actually rescue a story in which the protagonist fails the first half of the sympathy equation.

James Bond is a perfect example, which is exactly why the high-stakes poker game scene from Casino Royale jumped to mind as an illustration for this article. James Bond utterly fails the first half of the sympathy equation.

I give him full marks for action: Bond displays decisiveness in spades, and never delays an opportunity to take action. But emotionally, he fails. He doesn’t show us believable emotional responses. His cool-as-a-cucumber demeanor even in the hottest situations, and his devil-may-care attitude towards danger are not particularly realistic.

Yes, there are people in the world like that. That’s not the point. The point is, your readers probably aren’t like that themselves. Your readers are much more likely to be normal people who, you know, feel fear and stuff. They’re going to have trouble relating to someone who doesn’t.

Yet no one can argue that the character of James Bond has enjoyed wild success. Why? Because he’s always playing for very compelling, very high stakes. More than once, the fate of Queen and Country or even the whole world has rested on the outcomes of James Bond’s death-defying heroism.

The stakes in every Bond caper are so high they outweigh the protagonist’s stunted emotional development. Or, as Donald Maass put it very well in his book Writing the Breakout Novel:

If there is one single principle that is central to making any story more powerful, it is simply this: Raise the stakes.

When something important is at risk, we naturally expect characters to take extreme measures to eliminate that risk. Ask yourself, does every scene in your novel—like every scene in Casino Royale—bear directly on that risk or its consequences? If so, and especially if you get the first half of the sympathy equation right too, you might just have another Bond on your hands.

March 22, 2010 18:12 UTC

Tags: character, sympathy, hero, protagonist, stakes, James Bond, Donald Maass

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Drive a stake through your character's heart--but in a good way!

I suspect most writers would agree with what literary super-agent Donald Maass wrote in his book Writing the Breakout Novel:

If there is one single principle that is central to making any story more powerful, it is simply this: Raise the stakes.

And while my name doesn’t quite carry the authoritative weight of Mr. Maass (not yet, anyway!), I hope you would equally agree with one of my recent articles on the value of intertwining plot and character arc.

Today we’ll look at how to do both—raise the stakes and intertwine the plot with the character arc—in one shot:

Give your character an identity crisis: An identity crisis is an immediate ticket to character arc. An identity crisis forces a character to question who he really is, and ultimately to grow, mature, and become wiser. An identity crisis can also destroy your character, so readers can watch him rebuild into a newer, stronger, better version of himself.

The cool part is that there is a practically limitless array of potential identity crises you can draw from to find a close connection to your plot. Linking the resolution of the plot to the character’s resolution of the identity crisis immediately raises the stakes, because it adds the character’s need for self-understanding to whatever the outer stakes of the plot happen to be.

First, let’s take a quick look under the covers to see exactly what an identity crisis is, so we can then figure out how to create one that raises the stakes. An identity crisis stems from undermining something a character feels to be deeply true about himself. It can be anything:

Belief: I am my mother and father’s biological child. Undermining: Surprise! You were adopted.

That particular example has been done a lot (in fact, I’m set to do it again next month during NaNoWriMo) but you get the idea. Find something that is an utter rock-bottom, totally taken for granted part of the character’s set of beliefs, and change it.

When you do that, you force the character to start wondering “Well, if that was a lie, what else should I stop believing in?”

Undermining beliefs about relationships creates drama because relationships are so important in people’s lives. This is why the adoption one is so common, because parental relationships are among the most important in anyone’s life. But you can make it be about anything:

Belief: When I was four I fell down on a glass bottle and it broke and that’s how I got this scar on my side. Undermining: Surprise! When you were four, one of your kidneys was removed and donated to someone else.

Suddenly you have the character wondering how he could fail to remember something like that, why his parents had made up a different story, whether it was morally acceptable for them to do that to him when he was too young to really understand or consent, whether he can ever trust them again, and even whether (since he’s missing an organ) he’s still fully human.

Plot-centric Identity Crises: Now we’re in a good place to figure out how to use our plot—or even more generally, our genre—to pick a good crisis. The trick is to think about the character’s most deeply held beliefs of self, and look for one that naturally lends itself to a dependency on your plot. Everyone believes a great many things about themselves, so this shouldn’t be too hard. Find that natural connection, then destroy the belief that relies on it.

And just to show that a seemingly random core belief can relate to many different kinds of plots, let’s take some ideas from different genres and see how we could tie that missing kidney crisis to it. For all of these, we’ll assume the unknowing child donor has already become an adult.

Romance: Maybe the unwilling donor’s parents sold the kidney because they were in some sort of severe financial hardship. When he discovers that his parents ended up wasting the money on high living—new car, new TV, imported beer in the fridge—ending up right back where they started from a couple of years later, he comes to feel that something has been stolen from him. He finds he cannot feel whole without knowing where his other kidney ended up. He can’t accept that his unwilling sacrifice didn’t buy something more important than beer. So he searches and finds the recipient. Although he becomes attracted to her, he doesn’t tell her she’s got his kidney. Their flirtations grow more serious, and he falls in love with her. Saving her life, he decides, was a worthy trade. When at last she reciprocates his love, he becomes able to forgive his parents; had they not sold his kidney, he never would have met her. Only on their wedding night does he finally tell her about their deeper connection.

Legal Thriller: The kidney donor has become a District Attorney who is building a case against a black-market organ donor ring. At his annual physical, he is examined by a new resident-in-training, who asks about his scar. He tells the broken bottle story, but she doesn’t believe it. She whips out the portable ultrasound machine, takes a look, and tells him “sorry, you’re down a kidney, pal.” This completely upsets the relationship he thought he had with his parents, who are now deceased. Yet, everything he knows about morality and respect for the law, everything that led him to become a D.A., he learned from those same parents. He begins questioning his own commitment to those ideals. Still, when he recovers from the shock of this news, he digs into what happened. In going through his parents’ old papers, he discovers that the same black market organ ring he’s after performed his operation, and that the kidney went to a twin brother he never knew he had. (Bonus identity crisis: Surprise! You weren’t an only child, either.) But, being a chop-shop affair, his brother got sepsis from the operation and died. The papers contain enough clues about the organ ring that he can bring an indictment both for illegal organ sales and negligent homicide. In putting the case together, he comes to understand his parents’ difficult moral-vs.-emotional choice and comes to a more tempered view of the law itself. After handing off the case to a prosecutor, he resigns his job to pursue a seat as a judge.

Literary: Sometimes it can work well for the identity crisis to drive the plot, and again we’ll use the deceased-twin-brother: Suppose the character has always known he was missing a kidney, but thought it was removed when he was young because of renal cancer. As an adult, he has become a well-known cancer activist who is prominent in cancer-survivor support groups. His whole life unravels when he discovers that, again, his kidney was donated to a sick brother, and worse, it was his brother who had cancer, not him. Having subsumed “cancer survivor” so deeply into his own identity, the revelation that he never had it undermines his whole life and career. Should he keep quiet, or tell everyone the truth about himself? What about all the other survivors who have drawn inspiration from his supposed example of recovery and long-term health? Does he have a moral right to deny them that hope, when for many of them hope is a critical part of why they’re clinging to life at all? How can he maintain the same passion for his work when it’s not personal for him anymore? In the end, he resolves his identity crisis—and the outer plot issues—by shifting that part of his self-identity to “sibling of cancer victim” and establishing a new personal connection to what has become his life’s work.

Conclusion: I derived all of these examples by thinking about the character’s most deeply held beliefs of self, then looking at the premise and genre to find the specific belief to upend that best serves the story. However you manage it in your own story, whether the plot determines the crisis or vice versa, raise the stakes by driving a stake through your character’s heart.

October 06, 2009 21:14 UTC

Tags: character, character arc, identity crisis, stakes, raising stakes, Donald Maass, kidneys, NaNoWriMo

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Carpe Diem!

Although the classic Latin phrase Carpe Diem has spawned many derivative jokes, the core meaning of this cliche—seize the day—is not only good advice for success in life, it’s also good advice for novelists who want to develop strong characters.

Case in point: I recently worked on a book where the MacGuffin had gone missing, through assumedly nefarious doings by unknown antagonists. That’s a fine setup; the MacGuffin was something the main character cared deeply about, and it served as credible stakes for inciting the main character to action.

The author, rightly, aimed to create a situation where this main character (let’s call her Meredith for clarity’s sake), would go to great lengths to recover the MacGuffin and win the day. However, the author wanted (also rightly) to make Meredith an interesting, multi-dimensional character.

This is where things went wrong.

You see, the author saddled Meredith with a bad relationship, a marriage to an unfeeling, unsympathetic, and controlling husband. Roger, we’ll call him, didn’t give one thin damn about the MacGuffin, didn’t care at all for the anxiety that Meredith was suffering because her precious MacGuffin was lost, and constantly belittled Meredith’s ideas and strategies for how she might get the MacGuffin back.

This is not in itself a bad character development strategy. It offers the potential for character growth, for showing Meredith coming into her own as she chases down that MacGuffin no matter what. It allows an opportunity for readers to root for her, as we watch her growing awareness of her own power and self-determination as a human being.

But the author attempted to create a situation where Meredith had no one to help her but herself, by constantly leaving avenues of investigation un-pursued, possible actions un-taken. He didn’t want to take the time to write the scenes showing her doing those things and having them fail, so he simply left them un-pursued.

The reason for this passivity was always that Meredith was afraid of what Roger (or frankly, anyone else in the novel) might think of her. Was she being silly, for wanting this MacGuffin back so much? Would the cops laugh at her if she called them for help? Did she dare bother the neighbors to ask if they had seen anyone strange at her house?

In every case, the author made poor Meredith opt for preserving other people’s opinions of her (which couldn’t have been that great to begin with) rather than pursuing the goal she really wanted. The author, in attempting to force Meredith into a situation where she had to take control, instead showed that Meredith was passive and weak beyond all possible expectation, blowing with the changing winds of other people’s attitudes.

I’m sure he didn’t mean to, but that’s what he showed.

It would be one thing if she was like that in the first few chapters, but then got over it and started doing something. I kept waiting for Meredith to tell someone—anyone!—to stuff it and get out of her way. But she never did.

Poor, poor Meredith, she never did a darned thing to recover her MacGuffin. So when the MacGuffin more or less fell back into her lap at the end of the book (gotta have that happy ending, you know!), I wasn’t emotionally moved at all. After all, Meredith hadn’t done anything to deserve getting it back. She was just as sad and pathetic as she had been on page one.

It didn’t make for good characterization, nor did it make for a satisfying story.

July 10, 2009 17:07 UTC

Tags: character, carpe diem, seize the day, bad relationship, passivity, MacGuffin, stakes, multi-dimensional

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