Craft · Feature

What Do You Have To Lose?: Infusing Your Characters With Personal Stakes | DVPit Blog Hop

WBP is hosting another post for DVPit’s blog hop this week!

#DVpit, the Twitter pitch event for marginalized creators, is returning for its fifth run this April. In preparation for the main event, Writer’s Block Party is hosting a guest post from author and literary agent Hannah Fergesen as part of the #DVpit blog hop!

Every writer approaches writing their novel differently. Some of us pants while others plot, and some of us fall somewhere in the middle. Whichever umbrella you are under, there’s one thing every story needs regardless: personal stakes. It’s funny, then, that personal stakes are often what is missing from submissions I receive. I think we can all agree that a character should be personally invested in the narrative you’re creating. Sometimes, though, we get so excited about a character and a world we’re building, that we don’t realize our character is being dragged along by the plot, rather than influencing it, because their personal stakes aren’t high enough to facilitate action.

Sometimes this happens because we confuse what a character wants to achieve with personal stakes. But personal stakes refers to the thing that drives your character to what they want – in other words, your character wants something because they have a stake in achieving that goal. For example, if your character wants to be the best warrior the world has ever seen, that’s a lofty and admirable goal, sure. But your reader won’t care whether they achieve that goal if your character’s personal reasons for wanting to achieve that goal aren’t interesting, or even on the page.

Personal stakes can be emotional or physical. If your warrior wants to be the best warrior in the world because it was the last promise they made to their dying mother and they’ll feel like a failure if they don’t achieve it, that’s an emotional stake. If they want to be the best warrior in the world to defeat the current defender of that title so they may save their captured sibling from the current defender’s clutches, that’s physical. It’s active.

Both are valid – and both create very different stories. Emotional stakes will create more emotional stories, driven by emotion. Perfect for commercial fiction, women’s fiction, upmarket fiction, YA and MG contemporary, etc. Physical stakes are perfect for fantasy and science fiction and other speculative genres because they drive your character forward. That’s not to say you can’t have emotional stakes in SFF and vice versa! As long as it’s interesting and relevant to your character, your readers will stick with you.

It’s often after the inciting incident and the introduction of the conflict where we see the stakes come into play. They are what cause your character to go one way, while everyone else is going another. They are the reason we are following this character, and not another. When a conflict is introduced, the way a character reacts is influenced by what they stand to lose by doing nothing.

Let’s take an example:

You’re writing a detective story. The inciting incident of a detective story might go something like this: a precious artifact has been stolen from the museum. The Private Investigator has been hired to investigate.

Next, you’ll introduce your conflict: The P.I. must solve the mystery of the stolen artifact—but a nefarious gang will stop at nothing, including murder, to prevent him from finding it. And, the more the P.I. digs, the more he unearths about a political conspiracy attached to the artifact theft. This is getting to be a lot more dangerous, a lot scarier than the P.I. bargained on. He has a job to do, but, if it were me, I wouldn’t sacrifice my personal safety to solve the mystery. This is where a lot of writers lose start to lose readers. Because the obvious choice for the P.I. is to cut his losses and run. Unless…the P.I. has something personal at stake.

Here is where your story engages the reader. For a lowly P.I., getting in the middle of a nefarious gang AND a political conspiracy might not be worth it. To any rational human without a stake in solving the mystery, it wouldn’t be. Certainly not me!

But our P.I. DOES get involved. Otherwise, you have no story. But why?

So this is where you decide, what’s at stake? Is he being blackmailed? Does he have a personal tie to a person or plan within the gang or the conspiracy? Or are the stakes emotional: did he lose a loved one to this nefarious gang? Has he secretly been chasing them for years, looking for revenge? Tell us why he MUST solve the mystery, and what he stands to lose if he doesn’t. His home? His job? His life?

It’s possible you’ve heard the term “Character Agency” at one point or another as you’ve honed your craft. So, what is it? Character Agency is your character’s ability to take action and influence the narrative with their choices. Your character should influence plot, not the other way around. If your plot is acting upon your character, then you have what is called a passive character. They lack agency within their own story. Their decisions and actions do not affect the trajectory of the plot.

This often happens when a character lacks personal stakes, or strong enough stakes. How can we fix this? By giving your character a really good reason to make decisions within the plot. Something they stand to lose. This will ensure that your character drives the narrative and makes choices around what is at stake for them.

It’s important to consider your stakes throughout the novel-writing process. Your stakes influence your character’s desire, your character’s weaknesses, and their basic action. If you can’t justify a character’s action with something more solid than “because they can/wanted to in the moment”, take a step back and ask yourself why they really took that action. What are they fighting for and why? Identify the And Why and go from there.

A quick way to find out if your stakes are strong enough before you begin writing: write a query for your book! In 250 words or fewer, list out your character/hook, your inciting incident, the conflict that arises from that incident, and what is at stake for your character as they overcome that conflict. If you’re having trouble putting it into words, look deeper. Find your character’s North Star, and try again. Ultimately, you’ll find what is driving your character forward, and your story, and your readers, will thank you!

Do that homework! Make sure your main character has something personal at stake so your readers are invested in their stories, and definitely check out the rest of the blog hop (links on the resources page)! #DVpit’s pitch day for children’s and teen projects is April 25th and adult projects can be pitched on April 26th. #DVpit was created by Beth Phelan in 2016. Please visit www.dvpit.com for more information.


 

Hannah Agent Headshot

Hannah joined KT Literary as a New York-based agent after stints as a bookseller at the famous Books of Wonder in Manhattan, a literary assistant at Trident Media Group, and a freelance editor working with well-known authors. Thanks to her degree in Writing for Film and Television, she is attracted to stories with strong visuals and sharp dialogue, whether presented in edgy speculative or contemporary YA and MG fiction, or dark and lyrical speculative adult fiction.

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