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Creative Writing Fiction 2017-07-05 00:00

Why You Should Throw Your Main Character Under a Bus

What is it about a great story that keeps you turning the pages? Think of the last book you devoured in one sitting. What kept you so engrossed you had to stay up until 4am to finish it?

For those of us who sit bleary-eyed in front of a computer because we couldn't put a good book down last night, we stumbled across an author who knows how to raise the stakes.

And the higher the stakes, the better—am I right?

Let's dissect what makes for great story stakes, how can you tell if they're high enough, and what you can do to make them soar.

  1. What are story stakes?
  2. An example of high stakes
  3. How can you tell if your stakes aren't high enough?
  4. How to raise the stakes
  5. Final thoughts

What are story stakes?

To keep readers engaged and engrossed in your story, you need to grab their attention and keep it on every page. It's not enough to write interesting characters or a fantastic plot. Your story's ending must be tied to something BIG at stake.

Ask yourself these questions before you start your story:

  • What will your main character gain at the end if she wins the conflict?

  • What is the worst thing that could happen if he loses?

  • What does your protagonist need to get or achieve and what's holding her back from doing it?

  • What will your main character risk to get or achieve what he needs and what is he willing to sacrifice?

An example of high stakes

Let's look at my favorite high-stakes book, The Martian by Andy Weir, and answer the above questions. What Weir does incredibly well is make the central conflict have personal, high stakes for all involved characters. Pure genius.

The premise of the conflict is the crew makes an emergency take-off and leaves Mark Watney behind on Mars, assuming he's dead.

  1. Mark Watney needs to figure out how to survive on Mars until someone realizes he's alive and can rescue him.

  2. If he loses (or doesn't figure out how to survive), he dies.

  3. There are a multitude of mini and major problems Watney needs to overcome to survive. He sometimes loses hope he can keep himself alive.

  4. Watney risks certain death several times when using dangerous means to help him reach his end goal.

To not spoil this amazing book for those who haven't read it, the above answers are fairly cryptic, but you can get a feel for the stakes. They're pretty high.

But where the genius comes in is the supporting characters. Everyone has a personal stake in getting Watney rescued. His crew mates are devastated to realize he's been left behind. They feel responsible, but it's impossible for them to turn around to rescue him. Members of NASA are facing personal and professional failure as they try to figure out how to reach Watney before he runs out of food and water. And no one can forget that one man's life hangs in the balance of every decision they make.

How can you tell if your stakes aren't high enough?

Sometimes you just know when the stakes aren't high enough because you're not too worried about getting your characters out of conflict. If you're not sure, though, here are questions to help you nail down your stakes.

  • What happens if your main character fails to reach his goal?

  • Is your protagonist personally invested in the outcome of your story's central conflict?

  • What happens to the world and others around the main character if she fails?

  • Does your character reach a defining moment? Will he be changed forever?

Your answers to these questions should help you realize fairly quickly if your stakes are too low. If nothing important is happening or you don't have massive consequences for your main character's actions, you need to raise the stakes.

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How to raise the stakes

The best way to raise the stakes is to play the "what if" game. And my personal favorite is:

  • What if I throw the main character under a bus?

It changes the dynamic of any conflict when your main character is hit by a bus. Other writers like to put a gun in someone's hand and see what happens. Obviously, you can't have your main characters in every story get hit by a bus; people would stop reading your work.

But you can ask, "what's the worst thing that could happen right now?" and throw it in.

If you haven't, please read The Martian to see worst-case scenario in action. Or better yet, watch Season 3 of Downton Abbey for an utterly shocking main character's death.

Sometimes you need to go to extremes to raise the stakes. The key is to realize things should not merely happen to your characters. You don't want random disasters or catastrophes to strike your main character to show how brave, kind, or strong she is. You want to build on the power of cause and effect. This lets you deepen your themes and really explore your characters.

One solution is characters who somehow cause bad things to happen. If he can be responsible in some way for the bad thing happening, you have an opportunity to explore motivations and reactions that will bring a wonderful depth to your plot. For example, let's say your main character is the type to run away from his problems. He has a horrible fight with his love interest on the sidewalk in front of their flat and physically runs away into the path of an oncoming bus. He's responsible for causing this calamity on several different levels.

When you character isn't responsible, and bad things keep happening, you've merely victimized your main character. This will not raise the stakes. It just makes him a poor schmuck.

Final thoughts

We all love our main characters, but we need them to hurt badly. It's OK—even encouraged—to not play nicely with your characters. And if you can lay the responsibility for the bad things happening squarely on his or her shoulders, you're definitely raising the stakes, and you can get much deeper into your main character's psyche.

Let us know in the comments below your favorite example of stakes shooting through the roof. And then let us know how you're raising the stakes in your current work in progress so we can all learn from each other.

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