Everyone tells you to raise the stakes in your writing.
And that’s a lovely, easy thing to say when you are the editor and not the writer. But what does it actually mean?
You hear this and think, “Yeah. Yeah. High stakes equal important. Cool. Cool.”
But then you start thinking about dinner or something.
But it’s important. Carrie’s first breakout novel was NEED and it was a series about pixies trying to cause an apocalypse. Those are high stakes, right?
Agent Donald Maas says it pretty well, “High stakes yield high success.”
He suggests knowing exactly where the stakes increase. What page does this happen? Can those stakes be higher? Do those stakes make it harder for your main character to get what he/she/they want to get?
A really, beautiful way he puts this stakes question out there is by asking authors to ask themselves, “So what?”
What’s the so what question?
It’s this: IF YOUR MAIN CHARACTER DOESN’T GET THEIR GOAL THEN SO WHAT? Does it matter? How much does it matter?
And that brings me to what I think of I think is Maas’s most important point about stakes:
The stakes in your story don’t matter unless you’ve built in human worth about your main character. If your character’s life doesn’t matter to the reader, than the stakes don’t matter, and this is even true for life-and-death stakes.Maas
So, that brings us to the question of what is human worth and how do you make it happen in your story. That’s obviously a big cultural question, right? And this isn’t meant to be about philosophy, but about writing, and yes it’s all intertwined.
You have to ask questions about your character.
Who is she?
Why do we need to care about her?
What are the stakes that make it necessary for us to care that she gets her goal. There needs to be an extra burst of value in why us readers care about your character. Are they super moral? Are their morals and ethics at risk?
High human worth tends to focus on certain qualities of behavior such as:
So many books that are break-out books and movies are about friendships. Think about Harry Potter and Tolkein and Star Wars and even Marvel movies. There is a link that happens between the characters that show their worth through their caring for others. This isn’t just true for fantasy. But even in the specificity of contemporary realistic novels.
In realistic novels, we don’t necessarily deal with those blatant and beautiful archetypes that happen in science fiction and fantasy, but if there is anything that the Covid-19 pandemic teaches us is that there can be the heroic in the mundane. Hand washing and mask wearing can be an act of kindness and of power. But no matter how big our landscape needs to be then we have to make sure that our characters worth snags our reader into caring.
Some characters are unsympathetic and there is a tiny bit of redeemabilitiy in them. They have to somehow be likable. There’s got to be an element about them to latch onto. This varies in different cultures, but in ours currently, we can deal with a jerk of a character if they are funny or brave or super smart or charismatic. I mean, seriously, think about some popular celebrities that we latch onto. Charisma is a big deal thing and it lets you get a way with a lot.
Every reader has a slightly different threshold for the poopy behaviour they’ll put up with from a character.
WRITING TIP OF THE POD
Make your characters matter. Make them redeemable. Make them have human worth.
DOG TIP FOR LIFE
Choose the people who see your good, not just your bad.
The music we’ve clipped and shortened in this podcast is awesome and is made available through the Creative Commons License.
Here’s a link to that and the artist’s website. Who is this artist and what is this song? It’s “Summer Spliff” by Broke For Free.
We have a podcast, LOVING THE STRANGE, which we stream biweekly live on Carrie’s Facebook and Twitter and YouTube on Fridays. Her Facebook and Twitter handles are all carriejonesbooks or carriejonesbook. But she also has extra cool content focused on writing tips here.
Carrie is reading one of her raw poems every once in awhile on CARRIE DOES POEMS. And there you go! Whew! That’s a lot!