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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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2 Comments:

Posted by Iapetus999 on October 07, 2009 05:22 UTC

Yup. I’m totally doing this in my new WIP. My MC believes her family was wronged, and she “deserves” better. Acting on these beliefs, she’s going to get in a heap of trouble. Then at a critical moment, she’ll find out the opposite is true, and everything she was led to believe was a lie. She’ll be fluttering in the breeze before she can ground herself back in a new reality. She’s built this entire identity about herself that is false. So in the end, she needs to choose a new identity. Note that there will be plenty of hints but she won’t get the “message” because she doesn’t want to hear it. This is probably my NaNoWriMo story BTW. Probably Steampunk.

Posted by K.M. Weiland on October 07, 2009 19:39 UTC

Identity crises - or any kind of internal dilemma - are key to connecting plot and theme. And it’s that connection that will be the determining factor in whether or not your story and you characters rise above the thrill of the minute to something more impacting and memorable.

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