Compelling novels have many different ingredients that make them fascinating to read, but one standard components is a healthy, continual dose of ACTION. The protagonist is always doing something: weighing alternatives, choosing options, making decisions and then acting on them, good or bad.
Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? We throw something at a character and they deal with it. Seize the day, steer their fate. The plot rolls ahead, filled with glorious momentum, with the character tackling challenge after challenge as the reader is carried breathlessly toward the story’s finish line.
Only…that’s not what happens.
Why? Because characters are stubborn. They fight action, fight decisions, fight change. Most would rather sit on the couch with a bag of potato chips as loud music blasts from the stereo speakers so they can pretend they don’t hear the author banging at the door.
What’s missing is Motivation. To act, a character must be motivated to do so, especially when danger is present, the odds are unfavorable, or the consequences are grave. No one willingly throws themselves into a fire. They need to have a reason to do so, especially when fear is involved.
Fear The Reaper (And A Lot More)
As people, we make associations with fear (most negative). We tend to avoid things that scare us—a psychological response common to us all. To create believable fiction, what happens in the real world should be mirrored in the fictional one, so we need to apply this same mindset to our characters.
Fear comes in many flavors. In addition to specific fears the character has based on past negative experiences (backstory) such as a fear of the dark, fear of poverty, fear of abandonment, etc., there are universal fears that come onto play, like:
- A fear of pain or injury
- The fear of losing something (or someone) one cherishes
- The fear of failure
- A fear of losing oneself (identity)
- The fear of change
- The fear of death
Story catalysts (the “motivation” aspect of the Motivation-Reaction Units (MRU) can be positive or negative, and both can trigger fear. So when dread paralyzes action as effectively as a pair of cement boots, how do we get our characters to push past their fears and act?
We Raise The Stakes
Stakes are the consequences which will come about if your character does nothing. If the consequences seem far removed or more of an “inconvenience” than hardship, chances are, a protagonist will not be willing to step outside their comfort zone and get involved. But if the stakes are higher, and the consequences more dire or personal, then it pokes at a character’s moral soft spots, hitting them in the place where their strongest beliefs of right and wrong live.
The most effective way to raise the stakes is to personalize them to the protagonist in some way. One option is to use fear—more specifically, to activate a higher level of fear where doing nothing is worse than trying to do something despite the risk.
Fight Fear With Fear
If your protagonist fears failure…then have another character pay the price of failing. Nothing motivates someone faster than a loved one having to pay a steep price instead of the protagonist themselves.
If your protagonist fears losing something they cherish…have another suffer a loss undeservingly as a result if the hero or heroine does not succeed in their mission.
If your protagonist fears a loss of identity…have another be forced to sacrifice theirs as a consequence should the hero or heroine not step up and do what is right.
If your protagonist fears pain…create an end game scenario where another will suffer agony should the hero or heroine be unable to put themselves in the path of pain instead.
These are just a few examples, but there are many other ways to personalize stakes. Sometimes it can be helpful to have a list to brainstorm from, so we’ve created one at our other site, One Stop for Writers. Follow this link to download it, print, or share!
When you need your character to act, go through this list to see if there is a way to nudge their moral compass in the right direction.
And, if you want to see specific examples of stakes, visit One Stop for Writers’ Character Motivation Thesaurus, as we list possible stakes for every goal there’s an entry for!