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Fiction 101: Characters: Something to Lose

by DJ Braxton

As you’re creating your characters (see also, my blog post Fiction 101: Characters Song and Dance), one of the most integral questions you can ask of them is what they want. Find out what’s standing in their way of getting it, and just what they’re willing to risk to get there.

When we show a character’s vulnerability—that they, like us, stand to lose something in this game, we are drawn to them; essentially, we bond with them. Characters a reader can bond with make good fiction—memorable fiction, fiction that sells.

Stakes—meaning, what a character stands to lose—are what make readers turn pages. They’re what create tension and rising action and build momentum. A character might stand to lose an identity, a formerly held belief, an entire religion and the people that went with it, or they may stand to lose their own pride. Whatever it is, the tension around what they want and what they’re willing to risk to get it—including what obstacles they have to overcome, and what changes take place in the process—is the catalyst to setting an entire book in motion.

No one is perfect, not even your characters. And who wants to read about a perfect character anyway? What real people want to read are real characters who have ups and downs, hurts and confusion, tough decisions, crap that happens to them and that propels them to make choices that aren’t easy. Just like the rest of us. Illuminating the human condition is one of the biggest undertakings in writing a book. This applies to fantasy fiction, romance, history, science fiction, YA, and every genre under the sun—even nonfiction, as is the case with Liz Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love where she has to decide between a white-picket-fence life and marriage and a personal dream that might mean throwing it all away.

When your readers can identify with your character’s plight, they invest in your story and delight in finding out what happens next. Even if this character isn’t taking action-packed adventure, risking it all to go against the odds and beat some previous record, subtle stakes are just as powerful—the person who has to muster the vulnerability necessary to apologize to a family member, or the character who struggles with whether to read a letter that could change their life.

Whatever the stakes, give them lots of thought before writing. Of course, our characters are always surprising us with new twists and turns, but if you can have a clear sense of what your character wants, what is standing in his or her way of getting it, and what she or he stands to lose in the process, you’ll have the makings for a strong, memorable story and characters who your readers can root for, cry with, and be inspired by.

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