(No, this post is not about vampires.)
The question “what’s at stake for the characters?” has been much on my mind lately, as it’s been at the root of some of the difficulties I’ve been having developing a plot for my current work-soon-to-be-in-process-I-hope. I have what I think is an interesting world, and a set of characters I like. I have some cool incidents and events. I even have quite a lot of plot-like stuff waving about in the breeze, looking for somewhere it can anchor.
The trouble is that the plot-stuff won’t anchor, because my characters don’t have enough of a stake in what’s going on.
What anchors a central plot-problem to the characters is a stake through the heart: something that makes the central plot-problem matter to the character in a deep and personal way, because that problem affects something that the character cares deeply about. Sometimes, the stake connects straight to the central problem itself; sometimes the connection takes a couple of steps to get from character to central problem. Ultimately, though, if there’s no connection – if the main character has no reason to care about the pirates or the murder or the Evil Overlord – there’s no reason for that character to get involved in the first place.
Years ago, I heard somebody on a panel say that there were two ways of getting a character moving: either find something really important that she doesn’t have and dangle it in front of her, so that she struggles to get it, or else take something really important away from him, so that he has to struggle to get it back.
The “something really important” doesn’t have to be an object; it can be something like “peace of mind” or “becoming a doctor” or “keeping my family/friends/country safe.” It can even be something that, from the outside, looks enormously trivial, like “getting my rubber duckie back,” as long as it’s a) really important to the character and b) seriously at risk due to whatever the central plot-problem is.
The first trick is finding that really important something. Because an awful lot of things that are Really Important on the grand scale that we like to read and write about turn out not to be important enough to a particular character to get him/her to work at achieving them or fixing them or finding them or getting rid of them. It took Tolkien seventy-five pages (in my edition of The Lord of the Rings) and the appearance of the Black Riders just to get Frodo to leave home, despite what Gandalf had already told him of the One Ring and the importance of getting it to Rivendell.
Whatever the important thing is, it is going to vary from character to character. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that some things are universal – that anybody would want to rescue their child, or be rich and famous, or be king/president/CEO. But in real life, those things are not always true, not even that first one…and any writer who wants to write realistic, memorable individuals needs to at least consider whether their central characters need to be the mythical average “everyman,” or whether something unusual and different might be at the center of their heart (at least for this particular story).
Of course, the more unusual the Thing That Matters is, the clearer the writer has to be about the fact that it does matter, and why it matters. It isn’t too difficult to get a reader to believe that a parent would leap into a flooding river to rescue a child. On the face of it, it’s a lot harder to convince a reader that a character would jump into a flooding river in order to grab a soggy McDonald’s Happy Meal that’s floating by. (And my backbrain immediately responds “The Happy Meal is the crucial piece of evidence in a murder investigation, of course; the character needs it to keep an innocent man from getting the death penalty” which just goes to show that it can be done if it’s set up properly.)
Some plot-problems are easier to give your characters a stake in than others, depending on context. If the dragon or the Evil Overlord’s minions or the plague strikes directly at Our Heroine, her family, or her friends, it’s easy to believe she’ll buckle down and do something about it. If the dragon is ravaging and destroying down at the other end of the country, it’s a little harder to come up with a reason why she’d pick up and go off to defeat it. If the dragon is several kingdoms or an ocean away, one starts to wonder why it should be up to Our Heroine – don’t those folks have their own dragon-slaying heroes?
Implicit in all this is the idea that the Thing That Matters is in some way at risk – that the character may lose it or fail to gain it – or that the character will have to risk other important things to end up with it. What the character is willing to risk ties back to just how important the Thing That Matters is to that character, and how much risk that Thing is itself in.
Putting one’s life in jeopardy is usually viewed as the ultimate risk, something that one does to protect equally important things (people, honor, country, freedom, truth…). Risking one’s life is, therefore, generally not common in sitcoms, domestic comedies, or comedy-of-manners, where what’s at stake is the characters’ social status, interpersonal relationships, or general happiness. (Which insight I credit to Beth, my walking buddy.)
All this is, at bottom, why stories about happy people happily being happy are generally unsatisfying. Nothing is at stake; the characters have nothing to lose, nothing to gain, and no reason (except perhaps insanity) to risk so much as a hangnail.