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How to part a fool from his money

Money, the root of all evil, plays a large role in more books than probably anyone can name. It’s so ubiquitous, in fact, that I’m hard pressed to think of any book at all which doesn’t involve money at all. At the very least, practically every book involves someone buying or selling something. Maybe it’s only a pack of gum, but still, money plays a role. Did William Golding’s Lord of the Flies involve money anywhere? Maybe that’s one example, but it has been so long since I read it I wouldn’t swear to that. Somebody refresh my memory.

Why you might take your protagonist’s money away

Anyway, money is everywhere in our stories, which is great for writers because of two things. One, as the saying goes, “when in doubt, make things worse.” That is, when your book feels like it’s starting to sag and you’re not sure how to raise the drama back up, you can do no better than to dump some new problems on your protagonist. Ask yourself, “what’s the worst thing that could plausibly happen to him right now?” and do that. A great option might just be to part your protagonist from his cash. If he needs the money for something later (and who doesn’t?), that becomes a great obstacle.

Two, consider de-funding your protagonist for something I blogged about a long time ago, why you should steal your character’s shoes. The idea there is a bit different than merely creating an obstacle. You can read the whole article, but in brief, the strategy isn’t so much to create actual problems for your protagonist as it is to create what the character thinks are problems but really aren’t. The goal is to strip away everything the character thinks she needs but which are really just conveniences, leaving her with only what she actually needs: a willingness to pursue the goal no matter what. Viewed in that light, stripping your character of all her money might seem like an enormous problem for her at first, but upon later reflection, she can realize that money isn’t actually necessary for getting the job done. Useful, maybe, but not necessary. There’s lots of great drama in that.

How to take your protagonist’s money away

You could be blunt about it: simply rob the character at gunpoint, or burn down the house in which all his money is stashed. That would work, but in my view it’s kind of bland. I think the drama and opportunities for character development are ever so much better if you let it be at least partly the character’s fault that he loses all his money. Here, then, are three common mistakes in thinking, perception, and judgment which relate to people and their money. Perhaps one of these money-loss reasons would fit well with your plot.

The denomination effect. This relates to poor money management skills. The idea here is that people tend to spend more money in total if presented with many opportunities to spend small amounts of money than they will if presented with just a few opportunities to make larger purchases. This makes intuitive sense; most of us would think long and hard before choosing to spend a thousand dollars on a sweet new digital camera with all the bells and whistles. Yet few people think anything at all about spending two or three dollars a day on their morning latte, which over the course of a year, adds up to about the same. And over the course of the lifetime of the camera (which for a thousand bucks had better be more than a year!), the camera comes out way ahead versus the lattes. So one option is simply to let your character be the sort of person who makes a lot of small, impulse purchases that lead to an unfortunate shortage of cash at some point when they really need it.

The gambler’s fallacy. Like the name says, this relates directly to gambling, whether through casino-style games of chance or playing the stock market or even investing in real estate. Any time you have a character putting up money against the hope that a future event will break their way, the gambler’s fallacy can come into play. The fallacy itself is when a person gets the feeling or comes to believe that a fundamentally unlikely event is more likely to happen at a particular time simply because it hasn’t happened for a while. Note, too, there’s usually some selection bias involved as well: we only think this way about unlikely events that would be beneficial to us.

In gambling, what happens is that players will keep putting quarters into that slot machine, losing on every pull, but with every loss becoming more confident that surely the next pull will have to come up triple-cherries because “it’s bound to happen eventually.” Or in craps, making bet after bet in the face of continual losses because double-sixes “are due” to happen any time now. Well, no. They’re not. Unless the dice are loaded, double-sixes aren’t “due” at all. Each throw is independent of the last, and no amount of data about past throws tells you a darned thing about what might happen on the next throw.

You can see the pattern. In your novels, to bring the gambler’s fallacy into play you must first subject the character to a sequence of losses leading them to believe that they’re “due to win one.” Maybe they’ve made a series of bad real estate investments, each of which may have made sense at the time, but which turned out badly for one reason or another. “Just bad luck,” your character might think. But knowing that real estate prices do tend to rise over the long run, the character might fall into the trap of thinking that they’ve been playing the market long enough that “prices have got to start going back up soon,” and so might go all-in with their remaining money on one last deal.

Extraordinarity bias: This one relates to people’s tendency to over-value anything which is perceived to have something special about it, however intangible that special quality may be. How do you get a kid to trade a cow for a handful of beans? Convince him they’re special, extraordinary, magic beans. Of course, being a fairy tale the beans really were magic, but the point remains: Jack would never have made the trade except for his belief in the extraordinarity of the beans.

More prosaically, show a sports memorabilia collector two basically identical baseballs, but tell him “the one on the left once belonged to Joe DiMaggio’s cousin. Who knows, Joe may once have held this very ball! The one on the right I bought at Walmart this morning.” If you ask the person which baseball is more valuable, it’s not hard to guess which one he’ll pick.

Similarly, those home shopping channels on cable TV make relentless use of extraordinarity bias in everything they sell: the reason the announcers fill the air time telling you that the diamond chips in these fabulous 12-karat gold plated earrings came all the way from South Africa is to create the perception that there’s something special—something extraordinary—about these particular earrings versus ones you might find at any mass market jewelry store. Never mind that South Africa is where an enormous fraction of the world’s diamonds come from anyway, and as such aren’t any more or less remarkable than any other diamonds in the world.

For fleecing characters of their money, this one has got to be my favorite error in judgment because it is the basis on which a lot of confidence schemes work. The con artist gets someone to believe that a perfectly ordinary, relatively valueless item is in fact somehow very special, and as such, worth a lot of money. Think about your character’s background and interests, and figure out what kind of cheap garbage a con artist could use to dupe him. What’s the baseball, as it were, to your character’s equivalent of collecting sports memorabilia? I love this one because the character ends up broke, with nothing to show for it but a worthless trinket, because he let himself get duped.

How embarassing! The great thing for the novelist, though, is that not only does the con itself create a great moment in your novel, but you can very easily use it as an excellent turning point for the character. If you’re still early in the book when it’s appropriate for things to be getting worse and worse, maybe the act of getting duped undermines the character’s confidence, and leads to a series of poor choices based on not trusting himself anymore and second-guessing himself at every turn. Or, if it’s late in the book, the act of getting duped might have the opposite effect of steeling the character’s resolve to win through anyway.

Money is everywhere

I suspect most of us have something of a love/hate relationship with money. We love what it can do for us, but we hate how hard we have to work to get it. Your characters may well feel the same way, at least initially, but I guarantee if you cause the character to lose all of his or her money, you’ll make that character’s feelings about money suddenly much more complex and interesting. In any event, money is everywhere, in real life and in our novels. Rather than trying to fight it or gloss over it in your story, I hope these tips give you some ideas for how to work with it to improve the depth and layered complexity of your novel.

July 02, 2010 05:21 UTC

Tags: character, money, obstacles, denomination effect, gambler's fallacy, extraordinarity bias

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Posted by Lexi Revellian on July 03, 2010 11:54 UTC

Stop sending psychic thought-waves across the Atlantic!

The heroine of my WIP finds herself on the street in December, with no coat, handbag, money, home or access to friends. Oh, and she left her shoes behind...

Posted by Jason Black on July 03, 2010 17:07 UTC

@Lexi— What? But I thought that was my job! Glad you enjoyed the article.

Posted by Terry Odell on July 03, 2010 19:37 UTC

Gee, and I thought opening Finding Sarah with my heroine held up at gunpoint was a viable option. Of course, she didn’t keep much cash in the store, and I found lots more ways to make Sarha’s financial life miserable. My current heroine has money, but she can’t spend it.

Posted by Jason Black on July 03, 2010 23:24 UTC


Opening with your protagonist being held at gunpoint is certainly a viable option. That’s a dramatic opening hook, because the stakes aren’t her money, but her life. As a scene, that can totally work.

I guess I didn’t make this as explicit as I could have in the article, but my reason for suggesting using character flaws and errors in judgment as the basis for having a character go broke was to avoid the danger of their broke-ness feeling forced or foreordained.

That is, you wouldn’t want to have a scene that makes the reader think “Oh, I see. The whole point if this scene was simply to make the character be broke.” You don’t want to tip your hand like that.

But if you’re going to make use of any of the techniques in this article, you’re pretty much forced to create a series of scenes, starting from the beginning of the book, that eventually lead up to a situation in which the character finds lack of money is suddenly an obstacle towards whatever their real story goal is. These techniques aren’t made for one-shot scenes. They’re made for character arcs.

If you’re going to use the denomination effect, say, then realistically you’d have to show the character always buying stuff. Cheap, meaningless crap to be sure, but pretty much always doing it. Never thinking about how it all adds up. Then, later, the guy might find that his credit card doesn’t work when he’s out with his girlfriend because, well, he’s maxed it out. The charcter has nickel-and-dimed himself into a mountain of debt.

That’s realistic and totally believable—we all know people who shop too much and spend their money on junk they don’t really need—so when the credit card bills suddenly rear their ugly heads in the character’s face, and prevent him from buying the fabulous engagement ring he wants to use in proposing to his girlfriend, readers will go with it. They’ll know, already, that he is broke, and why he’s broke, and why he can’t just buy the ring on credit.

These techniques are more about the “slow burn,” laying a deep foundation for financial troubles that you can then turn into a major obstacle at a point in the story that may be far, far removed from the page where you first introduce the seeds of the money problem.

But don’t worry about using robbery in an opening scene. The stakes there really aren’t about money, so that’s totally fine.

Posted by Terry Odell on July 03, 2010 23:37 UTC

Thanks for the detailed response. The book’s won a couple of awards, so FWIW, it worked, I think. Her goal was to make a success of her shop, no matter what it took to do it. So, of course, I had to keep throwing financial problems her way. She wasn’t an extravagant character, but one who found her “comfortable” lifestyle disrupted with the death of her husband, and things went downhill from there. So, lack of money was a major problem from the get-go. Basically, I wanted to see how far she’d go to keep her shop afloat without breaking her own “I can do it on my own without anyone’s help” rule. Being a romance, of course, she has to learn that accepting help isn’t the same as being dependent. So, while her troubles revolved around money, and I kept taking it away from her, I think the theme of the book, and her character arc, went in a different direction.

Posted by Jessica Meats on July 19, 2010 07:49 UTC

Sometimes I think writers must secretly be horrible people. You think of something horrible to happen to a person and think, “Ooo, I know which character I’ll do that to!”

Stealing a character’s shoes is one I’d not thought of!

I hope you don’t mind if I use this topic for a post on my own blog. I’ll provide a link back; you discuss the idea clearly.

Posted by Jason Black on July 20, 2010 03:50 UTC

@Jessica Meats:

Oh, by all means blog about it! The more writers who see my advice, even if it’s in a roundabout way, the fewer who will come to me with mistakes in those areas, right? :) Well, maybe not a lot fewer, but a guy can dream, can’t he?

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