A Surefire Sign You’re Going Too Easy On Your Characters

A Surefire Way to Raise the Stakes in Your Story

A Surefire Sign You’re Going Too Easy On Your CharactersCharacters are people to whom bad things happen. This is a good definition as far as it goes, but if this is as far as you take it, you will fail to properly raise the stakes in your story, and the entire reading experience will suffer as a result.

Sure, bad things happen to characters. They find themselves in the midst of conflict, after all. But you don’t want these things to merely happen to your characters. The events of your plot should not be random calamities that happened to strike your brave and stalwart protagonist just so you can show how admirable he is.

This construction inevitably leads to shallow stories. You miss out on the power of cause and effect, the opportunity to deepen your themes, and, most importantly, the ability to explore your characters.

Characters should not be simply people to whom bad things happen. Instead characters should be people who caused bad things to happen to themselves.

Victim or Catalyst? How to Tell if Your Character Is Moving Your Plot

You don’t want your character to simply be someone who gets run over by the plot. Rather, you want your character to be someone who hijacks the bus and drives the plot—even when it’s to her detriment.

The secret to dynamic characters is involving them in the events of the plot. Even better, make them responsible for the events of the plot, to at least some degree. Not only does this prevent the plot events from seeming like random catastrophes, it also deepens your ability to explore your characters’ motivations and reactions.

If the character’s own decisions are at least partially responsible for the fix in which he finds himself, he will be forced to look deeper into his own soul. Instead of being able to cast full blame on the nasty antagonist, he must instead search his own heart for answers to the story’s plot and theme questions.

When you fail to make your character responsible for the story’s consequences, he becomes little more than a bland victim, and you fail to raise the stakes in your story. Consider, one last time, Gavin O’Connor’s problematic western Jane Got a Gun, in which plucky Jane recruits her ex-fiancé Dan to help fight off the outlaws who shot her husband Ham.

The story revolves around Jane and Dan’s pained relationship. Why didn’t she marry him? Why did he abandon her? Why did Ham marry her? Why is the antagonist Bishop after all of them?

Turns out the answer to every one of these questions is pretty incidental:

  • Jane made the arguably wrong choice of marrying Ham instead of Dan, her first love. But was she responsible for this decision? Nope. She thought Dan died in the Civil War. How much more interesting had she knowingly chosen Ham over Dan—and then had to live with the consequences?
Jane Got a Gun Natalie Portman Joel Edgerton

How to raise the stakes in your story? Make your character responsible for decisions that turn out to be wrong choices.

  • Dan never returned from the war to marry Jane—for which she blamed him. But was he responsible for this decision? Nope. He was a prisoner of war, unable to get word to her to wait for him. How much more interesting had he chosen not to return to her—and then had to live with the consequences?
Jane Got a Gun Joel Edgerton

How to raise the stakes in your story? Try to avoid leaving your characters so helpless they can’t contribute to creating their own challenging situations.

  • Ham worked for the Bishop gang who abducted Jane, supposedly killed her daughter, and attempted to force her into prostitution. But was he responsible for playing a part in what happened to her before he fell in love with her and rescued her? Nope (or at least, we never know for certain). He appeared to be a good guy (with bad judgment) from start to finish. How much more interesting had he knowingly participated in Bishop’s dark deeds—and then had to live with the consequences?
Jane Got a Gun Noah Emmerich

How to raise the stakes in your story? Let your characters make morally ambiguous decisions—and have to face the fallout.

So many juicy possibilities to explore! And yet, as it stands, nobody in this story is responsible for anything. They’re all just nice, bland people who were victims of incomplete information and to whom bad things happened through no real fault of their own.

How to Make Your Characters Responsible for Their Actions

It’s extremely easy to look at plot as merely a series of external events to which characters must react. But if that’s all that’s happening, you’re missing a wealth of opportunities.

Take a look at all the major turning points in your story. What consequences must your characters endure? Now ask yourself: are they personally responsible for these consequences in some way? How could you raise the stakes in your story?

Consider Uncle Ben’s death in the Spider-Man stories. Peter Parker certainly didn’t fire the gun that killed his uncle; he certainly didn’t want his uncle to be killed. And yet, he is still responsible for this terrible event through his own choice not to prevent the robbery in which the killer took part.

Uncle Ben's Death in Spider-Man Tobey McGuire

How much more interesting is Peter Parker’s story because it is founded upon the consequences of his own poor decision?

This decision fuels the entirety of Peter’s story. How much less interesting would his character development have been had he been merely a helpless, innocent bystander to the death of his beloved father figure? How much more interesting is the story because he was partially culpable?

Don’t play nice with your characters. It’s not enough to simply allow bad things to happen to them. Raise the stakes in your story by laying the burden of responsibility upon your characters for the tragedies that befall them.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How could you raise the stakes in your story by making your characters responsible for some of the mishaps that befall them? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. This is something I not only do but rather enjoy. A quick setup: Jane is not a born Arcturian citizen, but when Andrew, who she had been seeing, was shot he was taken to hospital on Homeworld, deep in Arcturian territory. As a non-Arcturian Jane was not entitled to a visa to see him, but she managed to bluff her way onto a warship that was going to Homeworld anyway. Andrew survived, but they broke up and he went home to Topanga. Jane applied for Arcturian citizenship, got it and joined Space Fleet.

    Four years later, before she goes on an undercover operation on a passenger liner, her CO asks the computer system, “Is there anyone who Jane has served with on that ship?” The computer correctly replies “No”. One of the liner’s crew recognises her, this blows her cover and the bad guys nearly kill her.

    The point is that for a couple of days before she was an officer Jane was hitching a ride on a warship, and everyone on the ship knew her. It was just the slightly sloppy wording of the question that resulted in the computer giving an answer that was exactly true and dangerously wrong.

    This is then compounded by Alan, who she has met on the liner, innocently telling another person that he thinks she must be in some sort of trouble. The other person is in fact an undercover baddie, but nobody knows this.

    Plot like knitted spaghetti…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nice! It’s great when events can seem to be almost “throwaway” in relation to the main plot, and then come back to bite the character in a very pertinent way. Readers don’t see it coming.

  2. I love this. So many good ideas to go with on my own WIP.

    I haven’t seen “Jane Got a Gun” yet, but you REALLY don’t like that movie, do you? lol

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I didn’t hate it, actually. It was just had several obvious problems that stood in its way of becoming a good movie–so it was a good teaching opportunity!

  3. I think, if I understand this correctly, that a character’s backstory could really come into play with raising the stakes in powerful ways. In my WIP, the protagonist Rinn has a backstory she can’t even remember where she did something horrible for an understandable reason. I think to raise the stakes properly I need to show how she is outwardly OK with making morally ambiguous (or even poor) choices to get to her story goal, while internally she is wrestling with guilt about whether she chose correctly. Then BAM, 3rd plot point, and her backstory is revealed to her; it all comes flooding back. She’s not sure if she can live with herself, and must choose to go on, to make better choices and to move past her guilt and pain.

    Am I taking the right kind of approach? 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, definitely! Just make sure you’re hinting heavily at the pertinence of the backstory throughout, so that when you do reveal it, it doesn’t seem coincidental.

    • Michael Saltar says:

      Thanks for posting this comment. I just did something similar with my WIP. Good to have confirmation! 🙂

  4. Michael Saltar says:

    You’re getting deep, KM. Good stuff. Timely.

  5. Of course it’s about choice.

    Stories like *Jane* start to remind me of the things we tell as kids, or the crazy melodramas of centuries back: this “happens,” then “a pirate shows up and does this,” “this happens”… A lot going on, but just throwing out different events and often introducing new people to cause each one. It’s the exact opposite of focusing on whether one character put several of those events in the story and what it *means* about what the person are– and the weight it gives to what he might do next.

    I do love the Spider-Man example. To show the progression a bit further: Superman had his planet (and in most versions, Pa Kent also ) die in ways that had nothing to do with him, so they only give him a general sense of loss. Batman saw his parents murdered and takes some blame for making them come to or leave the theater, though it’s really about the overall trauma of that night. And Spidey made an actual “don’t get involved” choice, so he has a very specific lesson hammered into him. You might say Iron Man took that a step further, that Stark had been deliberately building weapons left and right until he got his nose rubbed in (and his heart damaged by) the consequences and needed to reform. (Or Bruce Banner paid the price for working for the military, or Thor started that war and got exiled…)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great contrast with Superman. Nothing wrong with his backstory; it’s a sufficient Ghost. But how much more interesting if it directly affected him because he was directly responsible in some way?

      • True enough. I’ve always liked something like the *Red Son* continuity, that said Krypton turned out to be simply the future Earth. Superman’s home would finally *mean* something besides a disposable Planet Of Origins, and once he knew it would be destined to explode it’d give him the ultimate motive to start saving Earth today. (Time paradoxes or not.)

  6. Nice post. You cover one of the best pieces of advice for new writers here: Make sure your characters drive the plot, and not the other way around.

  7. Megan Brummer says:

    Gah! I love your blog. Every single post sends me back to the WIP to reevaluate! Thanks!!

  8. The inciting event for the entire book [minus the arrival of the other MC/love interest] is the fact that my MC breaks up with his fiancée not telling her why he’s doing it. She ends up running into a serial killer who in turn is drawn to the area the MC lives in because of her and kidnapping my second MC/love interest. Had he told her why he needed to break up with her and why he didn’t love her like she deserved, the whole plot wouldn’t have happened. That one action set off an entire chain of events that snowballed because of the personality trait that caused it. And the trait is still there until the MC decides to do something different… or not.

  9. My section in progress delves into Dad’s backstory, seeing him as very human guy who feels he could have done better and doesn’t want his son to waste away his opportunity for success.

    When the showdown comes, Dad will be overbearing and cruel – but it would never happen if the son wouldn’t have spent his teenage years worried about sports and girls rather than getting a job and studying hard.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Parental relationships are actually a great way to illustrate this principle. Parents make choices, usually doing what they believe is best for their child, but those choices often have unforeseen consequences, with the child being permanently affected in ways the parent failed to understand.

  10. Thanks so much for this post! In my WIP, my main character fights with another main character (whose pride also has consequences), and ends up being captured by the villain’s men. One of her few allies is killed in the rescue attempt, leading to another being kidnapped later. So, at the midpoint, she’s just left with the prideful main character to complete her task.

  11. It’s kind of like what happened back in the Garden of Eden. Dear Eve
    chose to eat that apple.

    Very insightful! Thanks.

  12. Amaia Crespo says:

    I think of Iron Man. In the first movie he is wounded by one of his own weapons, then he has the ARC reactor and electromagnet chest piece to prevent pieces of shrapnel from piercing his heart. In the second movie that same arc reactor is poisoning him with palladium. He is both times responsible for the terrible things that happen to him.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I totally loved how they upped those particular stakes in the second movie by having the thing that was keeping him alive also be the thing that was killing him. This is also one of the reasons I was so sad to see his reactor go at the end of the third movie.

  13. Ooh, this is a great way to make a story’s theme resonate better too. Love the idea of making my characters choose wrong paths to travel. Now to incorporate that in my WIP.

    Thanks for another wondeful post. Such a helpful site!

  14. Paula Priaulx says:

    This post was really helpful to me.

    In my WIP, my protagonist has done something quite unthinkable and caused her family great anquish and embarrassment. All she wants to do is get on with her life and she sees their concerns as trivial and their reactions as interferring and unjustified. Her determination to ignore the advice of her strong-willed, seemingly cold-hearted mother sees my lovely, but undeniably immature, character take a very bumpy ride along her chosen path to eventual enlightenment.

    The story is based on a real life situation and has generous doses of harsh reality and sadness that my protagosist has to face because of her stubborn attitude and irrational decisions. I am still in the “Structuring” stage (thanks to your guidance K.M) and was worried that too much was happening to her. Despite portraying a stern and complex persona, she does have the occasional lighter, even humorous, moments. These scenes are in the story to give the the naive and lovable side of her true nature an airing.

    Your comments and ideas have confirmed for me that I am sending my character along the correct story route. Thank you for an inspiring and helpful post.

  15. Pride is becoming one of my favorite flaws, because it hides behind so many things. And it is so destructive.

  16. This is something I am actively doing in my story right now. One of the main characters in my story, has a bit of a “villainous” history, for lack of a better word. He makes a horribly poor decicision and inadvertently causes one of his friends, an innocent girl who he had taken upon himself to mentor, and turns her into a main antagonist. It’s a bit more intricate than this, but this is the broad explanation of it. Haha

  17. Gina Scott Roberts says:

    Oh..wow! This is a godsend!!

    I have been working on a scene wherein a……not nice character tries to pick apart my female protagonist and you just gave me the sword he needs!! Her decision did lead to the events that he’s using to attack her, but I TOTALLY overlooked his using the fact everything happened because of her decision!

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  18. Watch Longmire, Netflix original series. You will watch this happen in spades. However, Longmire, like the Red Rising series start to get to me after a while. Come on man, you get in your own way so much that one starts to wonder if ANYONE can be that dumb. I have to say that I almost put the Red Rising series down for good when, yet again, the MC pulled some lame crap. “Ridiculous,” I shouted out loud, in a coffee shop, and dropped the book. “I’m done.” I came back to get the book after I cooled down and it sat on my night stand for weeks. 100 pages left and I couldn’t pick it up. Finally, I finished reading it and it turned out the the lame move the MC made was to set up the big finish. I felt extremely played. That being said, I read all three books…

    When does this go too far?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think, really, you answer your own question. When it goes so far that readers are irritated, it’s too far. It can be a fine line between drama and melodrama (especially in a series, which requires events to be perpetuated). It’s best if the consequences can be set up by character actions in the very beginning of the story (or even prior, as would be the case in Jane Got a Gun), and then allow the character to spend the rest of the story working off those consequences in a smart and admirable way.

  19. hmmm…I kind of like this article and in many ways agree with it, except it doesn’t necessarily line up with how things play out IRL. At least not the way I’m understanding it. There are lots of horrible people in the world who do crappy things to people for no reason other than the fact that they enjoy hurting other people or find it convenient to exploit others. Your examples with Jane’s Got a Gun do work, but I guess what’s bothering me is that I can’t stop thinking about the idea of faulting victims for the bad things that happen to them.

    Like I said maybe I’m not properly understanding your article. Yes Peter Parker didn’t stop the mugger when he could have, but at the end of the day the mugger is still responsible for his own actions. It almost feels equally mellow dramatic and cheesy that that one mugger –out of all the eight million people in New York– would mug and shoot Uncle Ben.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I hear what you’re saying, and you’re absolutely right that bad things often happen to people through no fault of their own. But because fiction is about the protagonist’s personal journey, making the ramifications as personal as possible usually gives the story more power. Yes, the mugger was ultimately responsible for Uncle Ben’s death, but because Peter played a role, however small, in the mugger’s *ability* to kill his uncle, the death became even more personal to his journey than it would have been otherwise.

      • I think it is also helpful to look at what fiction is trying to do, which IMHO is entertain or enlighten (or both). In order to enlighten, it needs to be able to shine a light on some aspect of the human experience and draw out what the possible lessons, ramifications, and/or growth can come from it. It is not so much that out of all the 18 million people in NY, that this one mugger killed Uncle Ben, it is that fact, within the reality of the story, that he did, and now Peter has to deal with his role in it. The choices that Peter makes are what we get to observe and, yes, judge, bringing us into participation with this life, which is, at least partially, the point of fiction. Since he DOES experience this seemingly unlikely event, we are swept along with his life as he now weighs everything he does against the barometer of that one moment. It gives even dumb decisions weight and anchors them in the character’s reality.

        OK, stepping off the soapbox (but it was fun up there).

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          You raise an excellent insight in that Peter’s experience isn’t important in so much as he was partially responsible for what happened to Uncle Ben, but more because that one ignorant-but-culpable decision on his part defined his life. That “moment of definition” is what fiction is all about. Every story needs to include one–else, why this story?

  20. My hero is a 65-year-0ld woman who has finally gotten the confidence to live life instead of drifting through it. She wishes for a do-over, preferably in Regency England, not realizing her “wishing ball” is real. Instead she finds herself in the American West of the 1870s instead, and is now 18 years old. Now she has to learn how to make friends, what kind of work she’s allowed to do, and cope with all the differences between the things she took of granted in the 21st century that don’t exist yet.

    Would this be making her responsible for her predicament or would it be something that just happened to her because she didn’t believe in wishing balls?

    • That sounds fun. There’s a classic SF novel by H Beam Piper which is titled “Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen” or “Gunpowder God” in different editions.

      The protag finds himself in a similar situation, and makes up for the lack of technology by some clever jury-rigging.

      In your novel I’d suggest that if the protag did anything with the wishing ball at all then they are at least partly responsible for what happens.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I love it! And, yes, I’d definitely count this as her being responsible. Even though things turned out differently from what she expected, she both triggered the wishing ball and wished for a do-over (which she got). Good job!

  21. Thank you for this. It makes a lot sense. I’ve gotten bored with my characters even though I’ve completely finished one novel and in the middle of the next. I think this will help me find my interest in them again. And if I’m interested in them, my reader will be also.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Exactly! If the author is bored, that’s always a sign something is wrong. A bored author never wrote an interesting story. Unless maybe that author was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 😉

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  1. […] explores when to use multiple points-of-view characters and when to avoid it, K.M. Weiland reveals a surefire way to raise the stakes in your story, and C.S. Lakin shows how to develop a strong novel concept starting with an […]

  2. […] http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/raise-the-stakes-in-your-story/ Make your character responsible for the things that happen, i.e. Spiderman and the death of his uncle. […]

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