Rule #16

What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

I’ve read a lot lately. The submissions for the Lucky or Unlucky anthology as well as just workshop stuff. And you know what? This ‘rule’ is spot on.

Gene Roddenberry listening to fans after his l...

Who cares if the grammar is right or the punctuation marks are correctly used? Who cares if your characters have the most detailed and intriguing backgrounds? Who cares if your world-building is better than anything Tolkien or Roddenberry dreamed up?

The thing is, if your characters are not up against a wall they’ve got to climb else something bad will happen, then I probably don’t care about all the rest and I’ll promptly move on to the next book/story/TV show/game/news/whatever-else-that-interests me.

Yes, you might enjoy reading about your characters bantering about witty dialogue or traipsing through fields of flowers. Of course you do. They’re your babies. But why should I care?

Remember Rule #4? Let’s review that again:

Once upon a time there was a wizard. Every day he would visit the princess to tell her how much he loved her. And everyday she ignored him, sending him further into depression. One day, when he goes to visit her, she is gone, stolen by the great dragon. Because of that, the princess can not bless the crops. Because of that, the crops will whither and the people will starve or riot or do something terrible. Until finally, despite her spurns, the wizard decides he has to go save her or bless the crops himself or some how save the people before they all starve to death.

This is an attempt to do several things:

  1. Find the heart of your story (love spurned will get you no where – sorry, my example is piss poor, isn’t it?)
  2. Tell you and your readers why it matters (people will starve!)
  3. It gives your hero a clear goal (save the princess!)

Of course, you can complicate this simple formula. (What if the princess wasn’t stolen? Maybe she went on her own to draw the wizard away from his power source?) The point is, you’ve shown a clear reason why we need to care and why we should keep reading.

Like all rules and tips, there are exceptions. But the majority of readers want to care. Give ’em a reason to.


7 thoughts on “Rule #16

    1. Ah, yes, I see what you mean. I guess that’s why that story doesn’t quite work. The things is I was trying to do the story with a story with a story on that one. And, obviously, I don’t have the skills to do that yet! I’ll stick to something easier. 😉

  1. Ah – conflict. My favourite. As somebody who likes to see characters mature throughout the course of a book, I feel that conflict is the best method for driving both plot and character development.

    Keep throwing them up against it and keep watching them get right up again 🙂

      1. I’ve always felt that the biggest obstacle to the success of the protagonist shouldn’t be the antagonist – it should be the author. Do everything in your power to stop your own character(s) succeeding 😀

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