Something at Stake

I mentioned in my last post that I would be working on some of my short stories for Arcana Revived in the near future. I’ve also mentioned that I was getting a couple of those short stories critiqued and workshopped by my classmates in my Rowan University graduate fiction workshop. I noticed a common theme during the class workshops, both of my own story and of others from the class, which seems to come up often enough to be worth discussing. It’s the issue of making sure your characters have something at stake.

This seems to be an issue that mostly relates to first drafts and works that are in their early stages of development. The idea is that no matter how interesting the individual events in the story are, the characters involved (most especially the main character) need to have something at stake. If they don’t have anything at stake, anything to lose, anything to gain, or any chance to grow, then their story may end up being pointless.

There’s a few different ways that this issue seemed to come up in the stories we workshopped, so I’ll go over each one individually.

The Stakes Aren’t Apparent at the Beginning

This seems to mostly be an issue with the stories that were actually the early chapters of a novel. The problem occurs when there are interesting characters in an interesting situation but with no apparent reason for them to be there. For example, one of my classmates was writing a story about a character who was being dragged along as a guide/sidekick/partner to the Spirit of Vengeance while they went on a quest to do . . . something.

That “something” part was what was missing. The section we workshopped (which was basically the first chapter of the draft) didn’t give us any reason for the characters to be on this “quest.” The characters were interesting (think Jay from Men in Black meets a ghost who has the same creepy powerful vibe as Agent Smith from The Matrix). The idea of traveling with the Spirit of Vengeance on some kind of quest was interesting. But in the opening we read, we didn’t know what the quest was or why it was important for the main character to be on it.

This mostly seemed to stem from the fact that this was an early opening draft where the author was still exploring the characters and learning what they were all about. It’s a common thing in early drafts. Sometimes it takes a while to explore the characters and learn about them. However, once you’ve done so, it may prove necessary to cut the early “exploratory” sections of the piece before final publication.

The Point of View Character Isn’t the One with Something at Stake

This is a different issue than the one mentioned above, where the “main” character of a story is just along for the ride. Some of the stories we reviewed had characters who were reporting on a lot of interesting things happening around them (happening to friends, family, or others), but who had no personal stake in the events.

As an example, consider what would happen if you took a story like The Hunger Games and told it from the perspective of someone watching the Games from home. You could have them watch every event that Katniss goes through, tell the exact same story . . . except the person watching wouldn’t be the one with something really at stake. Even if it were Katniss’s mother or sister, they don’t have as much at stake in the story as Katniss herself.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that a character has to be the most directly involved in order to be the point of view character. Dr. Watson was Sherlock Holmes’s sidekick, yet he was also the one telling the story. But he was directly involved in events and had a personal stake in their outcome.

The Stakes Aren’t Personal Enough

While my story, Next Spring, was being workshopped, some of the reviewers raised the point that the main character, Callia Gainsborough, didn’t have enough of a personal stake in the conflict as it was being presented. This is something that will be easy enough to fix during revisions, and the central cause was that the story focused a little too much on the supporting character, Ethan. Ethan’s role was meant to be minor, and his interactions with Callia in the story were meant to show how Callia would react to certain events. Yet since most of the story involved Callia merely reacting to Ethan’s actions and behavior, the result was that she didn’t seem to have much at stake for herself, her own needs, and her own character development.

The solution is simply to revise the story with a greater focus on Callia’s thoughts and emotions. There are issues that Callia is struggling with: the changes in her life, her loneliness, her need to find her place, and her as-yet-unexpressed feelings for someone she’s only previously been friends with. Focusing on these issues will give Callia more of a personal conflict to overcome (even if the conflict is mostly an internal one). Then, her interactions with Ethan simply become a catalyst for how she decides to look within herself.

The good news is that the basic structure of the story–the events that laid out from Point A to B to C–are already there. This will allow me to go back and add more depth to the character without having to alter the overall course of the story.

The Character Doesn’t Demonstrate Change

An important part of any story is having a character grow and change during the course of it. During a short story, this can be difficult, since you don’t have a lot of time to work with. However, a character can undergo a significant change in a short amount of time.

Sometimes the change is merely an internal one. For example, as I mentioned when discussing New Spring above, the conflict in the story is mostly centered around Callia’s thoughts and emotions. Simply coming to a decision, revelation, or other emotional triumph can be enough of a change in such a case. In other stories, the change might be more drastic, such as with my short story Radiance, where the main character Maria Vasquez undergoes an actual supernatural physical transformation. Then there are cases where a character grows up in some way by making an important decision that shows an embarkment into maturity. Or a character might make a significant life decision, and in a short story, the reader doesn’t always need to see what happens after that decision. Just knowing that a character is going to quit their job, or move to another state, or try to reconnect with their girlfriend might be enough of an ending (think of the ending to the movie Clerks, where Dante ends with the decision to fix things up with Veronica, but we don’t actually see him do so).

If a character didn’t change throughout the course of the story, it was probably because they had nothing at stake. The stakes of the story should be the catalyst for change. And if you see someone else besides the main character experience growth and change, that’s a good sign that the main character wasn’t the one with something at stake.

There’s likely other issues centered around a character having something at stake. Let me know if you can think of any. Because what’s at stake for me is becoming the best writer I can be.

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