The Economy of Sex

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First off, I’d like to open this blog post by saying that this is not a post about prostitution. Though from an economic standpoint, the principles I’ll be discussing can technically be applied to the sex industry, so prostitution will probably come up at some point.

What I’d like to discuss is the economic considerations that relate to sex in your novels. No, this doesn’t just mean that “sex sells” and writing a novel with lots of sex in it will make you money. While erotica can be a bestselling category, the economics of book sales aren’t what I’m talking about. Instead, I’m talking about how sex can be understood by using economic theory to analyze human behavior, and how this can relate to the actions your characters take in your novel.

One of the basics of economic theory states that businesses are in the market to maximize their profits, and consumers are in the market to maximize their happiness. There are a lot of complicated variables that get factored in to those basics (and you’d need an economics major, not a writer, to go into full detail about them), but the general idea is pretty simple. A business will make a decision based on the bottom line. A consumer will make a decision based on their own personal needs and desires.

To use a simple example of how this works in practice, consider a company that is thinking of raising its prices. The company knows that by raising their prices, they will lose some customers. But if the remaining customers are willing to pay the higher price, they’ll still do it. If too many customers leave, it won’t be worth it. How many customers leave depends on whether they think they will be more satisfied with a different product, perhaps for a lower price. For example, let’s say you have 100 customers a day paying $10 for your product, earning you $1000. If you raise the price to $11 and lose five customers, you still have 95 customers and you earn $1045. If you lose ten customers, on the other hand, you only have 90 left and you make $990. A company will choose the option that leads to the most money, or else change their prices back if it turns out to be a mistake.

So what the hell does this have to do with sex in your novels? Well, economic theory can also be used to describe individual human behavior. Before we get to the sexy parts, take an example of how economics can explain theft. Have you ever wondered why newspaper vending machines aren’t built like soda machines? When you buy a newspaper, you can open the machine and, if you wanted, take as many papers out as you like. You can clean the whole machine out. But what would be the benefit? As a consumer, you’re trying to maximize your happiness. Reading the same day’s news a second time won’t make you any happier, and you’ll never make a worthwhile amount of money trying to sell those papers to people in the street. Cleaning out a soda machine, however, can increase your happiness more, since you can save the extra sodas for later. That’s why soda machines only drop one soda out at a time, instead of letting you open the door and help yourself.

So, why do people decide to have sex? Well, because it makes them happy, of course. And like the newspaper, people might get tired of the same old news every day, but they’ll always be interested in something new and exciting.

On a basic level, this can explain why characters in your novel might decide to cheat on their spouse. They’re tired of the same old thing and want something new. But the economy of sex is a bit more complex than that, and if you’re planning on writing an affair into your story, there are some other variables to consider.

One is risk versus reward. For a company like the one mentioned above, the risk is losing money (if you lose too many customers and your profits drop) and the reward is earning more money (if you only lose a few customers and profits increase). For consumers, the risk is usually the possibility that you’ve wasted your money on an inferior product, while the reward is the happiness that product brings you.

What is the risk versus reward in having an affair? Well, the reward, of course, is sex. Though that reward can be greater if you’re with someone you desire greatly or have strong romantic feelings toward. So the reward might be higher, say, for someone cheating on his wife with a woman he’s fallen in love with, and lower for someone cheating on his wife with a prostitute (see, I told you prostitutes would probably come up). The risk, however, might be lower with the prostitute (who isn’t likely to tell the man’s wife), but be much higher with another woman (especially if she’s a friend of the wife). So the cheating man in this case might need to weigh the risk of getting caught against how much he desires the woman. If the risk of getting caught (and ruining his marriage, losing his family, and being publicly humiliated) are too great, he might decide to break off the affair.

Another variable to consider is supply and demand. Generally, if supply of a product is high, it’s seen as less valuable, but if supply is low, the value increases. Demand is the opposite–if demand is high, the value increases, but if demand is low, the value decreases.

To continue with the example of the cheating spouse in a novel, if the supply of sex is low (in other words, his wife hasn’t been sleeping with him as much as he wants), then he will be more likely to cheat in order to get what he wants. If the demand is high (because he has a lot of desires) he’ll also be more likely to cheat. But if the demand is low (because he has a low sex drive) and the supply is high (because his wife frequently sleeps with him) then cheating isn’t as likely.

Let’s apply all of these theories to a specific novel and see how they work out. I recently read The Bridges of Madison County, and while I didn’t consider it a well-written book, it serves as a good example here. In the book, the character Francesca Johnson cheats on her husband and has a short, four-day affair with a traveling photographer, Robert Kincaid. I’d like to break down the variables of their affair based on the economy of sex as I’ve described above.

Does the affair increase Francesca’s happiness? Absolutely. The risk of getting caught is low, because Francesca’s family is out of town and she lives on an isolated road. As long as she is careful, she’s able to avoid much chance of her neighbors finding out there’s another man at her house. The reward is high (Robert gives her multiple orgasms for  the first time in her life). The demand is also high, since she has an uncontrollable desire for Robert and falls madly in love with him. And the previous supply was low, since it’s mentioned in the book that Francesca’s husband is rarely interested in sex anymore. All of the variables are in place to make Francesca’s decision to cheat make perfect sense, from an economic point of view.

Next let’s consider the ending of the book. Francesca wants to run away with Robert, and almost does so. But in the end, she decides against it. Why? Supply, demand, risk, and reward can explain this as well. The supply would obviously be high if she runs off with him, but the demand isn’t high enough for her to leave her home and her family. The reward would be great since she loves Robert and knows he could make her happy, but the risk would be too high. She’d lose her husband, her children, her home, her friends, everything. In the end, those risks outweigh the reward of being with Robert.

There are a lot of other ways the economy of sex can influence your characters’ decisions. The risks of sex can include things like STDs, pregnancy, the chance of emotional rejection by a partner, or the chance of public disdain if your friends or family disapprove. The rewards can include not just the physical pleasure, but also the emotional bonding and fulfillment.

Supply and demand can be seen in more than just the terms of “Does the character want sex?” and “Can the character get sex?” Let’s say your character has two men in her life, one of whom is eager to be with her, the other is resistant. The supply could be high with the first man, but the demand higher with the second. Or if you consider a character who is saving themselves for marriage, the supply might be low while the demand is very high. This can lead to greater temptation and greater risk that the character will decide to take the risk in order to get what they want, even if they might regret it later.

There’s lots of other variables that can be added into these, but this is a pretty good starting point. If you’re writing a novel that includes sex, you might want to consider some of the questions raised here. What does the character risk? What is the reward? How do supply and demand influence their decisions? It might give you a new perspective on how to understand your character and what they do.


Sex, Purity, Lust, and Morality in Writing

Lots of books have sex.

Let me rephrase that, since that wording could be interpreted as a couple of hardback copies of your favorite novels flipping each other’s pages under the covers (pun intended).

This is either the aftermath of a late night study session or a wild literary orgy. Maybe both.
This is either the aftermath of a late night study session or a wild literary orgy. Maybe both.

Lots of books depict scenes that involve sex. The depictions can be either graphic or subdued, described in every erotic detail or done in an artistic fashion. But since I’ve discussed those differences before, I have a different perspective today with regard to literary sex. The idea of sex from a religious, moral, and philosophical view.

I’ve read articles before that discuss things like “slut-shaming,” which is negativity and insults directed at people (most likely women) who embrace their sexuality instead of conforming to a more conservative view on sex. In other words, people will trash-talk women who have an active sex life and treat them as if they’re doing something wrong. Usually, these articles point out the contrast between men and women, since a man that has an active sex life is seen as successful–a Don Juan, a “player,” and someone envied by other men. I’m not going to get into detail about the various views on these issues, since there are plenty of better-informed individuals out there with more expertise on the psychology behind it all (this article is a good example that provides detailed definitions with academic references). Instead, I’d like to examine these ideas about sexuality in relation to characters in novels.

Characters are portrayed differently in many novels (and other forms of media) when it comes to their sexuality. I’m not talking about the descriptions of the physical act itself. Instead, I’m talking about what sex means to the characters and by extension to the reader. A few examples of how sex is portrayed include:

  • Sex as a Goal – Some stories involve characters trying to seduce others, where having sex is considered the main driving force behind the character. One example of this would be the first American Pie movie, where the four main characters are intent on losing their virginity before they graduate high school. Throughout the film, sex is portrayed in a variety of ways (one couple is in a serious relationship, another is falling in love for the first time, one boy is seduced by an older woman, and another has a one-night stand with a girl who was gone when he woke up in the morning). While each of these situations has an emotionally and thematically different meaning, the overall message is that the boys in the film are “victorious” when they lose their virginity. This is consistent with what I mentioned above about sex often being viewed as something acceptable for men to pursue, and one might argue that female characters in the same roles would be viewed in a more negative light because of society’s preconceptions.
  • Sex as Emotional Bonding – In many romance stories, there is a long-running “will they/won’t they” tension as the two main characters develop their relationship. In these types of stories, the characters may not end up having sex until well into the story, after they’ve struggled through the early stages of the relationship, faced a near-breakup and overcome it, and then finally confessed their undying love for each other. Certain societal views would generally consider this a more “moral” type of sex, since it’s sex as an expression of deep emotional connections. Also, “make up sex” can be portrayed in some stories as a type of emotional bonding, showing that the characters are reunited after a conflict.
  • Sex as an Immoral Act – A more negative portrayal and the one most closely associated with the idea of “slut-shaming” mentioned above, sex as an immoral act can take a variety of forms. Sometimes it involves one character in a relationship cheating on the other, showing that they aren’t committed to the relationship (though it’s worth nothing that in some stories, the cheating is celebrated because it involves finding one’s true love (with someone other than the character’s current spouse or partner)). Another example could include one character “stealing” another’s love interest by seducing them, when they had no interest in the person other than taking them away from the main character. Or one character might lead the other on with the idea that they’re going to end up in a committed relationship but instead it only ends up being a one-night stand. This last example can lead to the “innocent” character being heartbroken when they realize that the other person just used them for sex.
  • Sex as a Release – Sometimes, characters have sex just because they need to release the tension. This can lead to further conflict if one character thought there was a deeper meaning when the other thought it was just a one-time thing. Other times it can be a situation where both characters have no expectations of each other and they simply decide to enjoy the experience, then move on.

There are plenty of other possible ways sex can be portrayed, but even among these examples we have a broad spectrum of potential moral views. Sex can be seen as a victory, a manipulation, an expression of love and affection, or just a quick romp. Depending on an individual’s moral stance, some of these types of sex might be seen as “right” or “wrong.” For example, people who believe that sex should be saved for marriage (or at least, for a committed relationship) might view any one-night stand as an immoral act, while others would simply view it as two consenting adults embracing their sexuality. It’s worth noting, however, that not all one-night stands are created equal; if one character wanted a serious relationship and the other just wanted a good time, then someone’s feelings will end up being hurt when they feel like they were seduced and used.

So what does all this have to do with your novels? Well, if your characters ever end up having sex, it’s possible you’ll end up being faced with the question about what that “means” and what message you’re trying to send. Many readers will believe that your characters’ actions are sending a message about what is or isn’t acceptable. For example, some people argue that most media depictions cast a negative light on any woman who has casual sex and a positive light on any woman who only has sex within a relationship, thus reinforcing a certain moral perspective. A good example of this is the Iron Man movie franchise. In the first two films, Tony Stark’s various one-night stands depict Tony as a glamorous playboy and the women he sleeps with as trashy. Pepper Potts engages in a lot of “slut-shaming” in the way she treats these women:

Pepper: [after Stark’s one night stand with Christine] I have your clothes here; they’ve been dry cleaned and pressed. And there’s a car waiting for you outside that will take you anywhere you’d like to go.
Christine: You must be the famous Pepper Potts.
Pepper: Indeed I am.
Christine: After all these years, Tony still has you picking up the dry cleaning.
Pepper: I do anything and everything Mr. Stark requires. Including occasionally taking out the trash. Will that be all?

Yet while Pepper implies that this girl is “trash,” and makes similar insults to other women throughout the films, Pepper herself is viewed differently when she ends up involved with Tony at the end of the second film. When Pepper and Tony get together, it is portrayed as a declaration of their love for each other and the desire they’ve been hiding from each other for years. No one shames Pepper for this in the way she shamed other women who got involved with Tony. The message here could be interpreted as saying that a committed relationship is good and casual sex is bad.

This is the sort of thing I think it’s important to be aware of when writing a novel. Even if it isn’t intentional, you could end up giving off a similar message (or at least, your readers might interpret a message that you don’t think is there). If you hold the stance that certain kinds of sex are good and others are bad, you might be okay with adding such messages to your novels. If you don’t want your work to be interpreted that way, however, you should give careful thought to how your characters are being depicted.

To give an example from my own writing, I have a few sexually active characters in the series I’m working on. The two primary main characters of the series are Gabby Palladino and Tock Zipporah, and both of their sex lives are seen (to some extent or another) in the course of the books. Both of them, as individuals, have very different views on sex. The differences in their views can be seen in this excerpt from one of the early chapters of Manifestation:

“I’m looking for Frankie,” Gabby said.

Gabby looked her over with a slight frown, and Tock pulled the sheet up tighter over herself. Gabby blushed and looked away, then asked, “Are you . . . are you his girlfriend?”

Tock snorted, denying the notion despite her reaction to the girl’s presence. “Nah,” she replied. “We’s jus’ shaggin’.” She decided to keep telling herself that. “What the fuck’s it to ya?” She didn’t much like the way the girl was acting as if Tock were the one who needed to explain her presence here.

“He’s my brother,” the girl said. Ahh, Tock thought. So that’s it. The strange looks the girl was giving her suddenly made sense. So did the apparent look of hurt and disappointment when she’d learned that Tock was just the girl her brother was fucking.

This scene is Gabby and Tock’s first meeting, and their conflicting views on sex are clearly seen. When Gabby finds a strange girl in her brother’s bed, her first assumption is that Frankie and Tock must be in a serious, committed relationship. In Gabby’s innocent worldview (a worldview influenced by her religious upbringing), she believes that sex should be saved for someone you love. In Tock’s view, there’s nothing wrong with just having a good time.

Is either Gabby or Tock “right” or “wrong”? No. In my opinion, both views can be valid, as long as the views aren’t forced on another person. I think it’s possible to have two characters with two contradictory views on sex and have both of them be perfectly right in their individual opinions. Just like I believe that if someone thinks sex should wait until after marriage, that’s perfectly fine, because that’s what that person believes for themselves. The only time I see it becoming an issue is when one character tries to force their views on another. For example, if Gabby had started insulting Tock in this scene (engaging in “slut-shaming”), then that would show Gabby trying to force her views on Tock. She doesn’t do that, however, even if she disagrees with Tock’s views.

Would Iron Man have been different if Pepper Potts never shamed any of Tony’s girlfriends? The message in those films is clearly one that holds Pepper as being “better” than the other girls. How would that depiction be changed if the shaming scenes had been deleted?

I’m not sure I have an answer to that question, just like I’m not sure if my own characters’ depictions are giving the message I want them to give. My goal is to express Gabby and Tock’s different and conflicting views, without holding one set of views above the other. In my opinion, both are equally valid. But I do worry that people will misconstrue Tock’s sexuality and think that I am sending a message from a certain moral stance.

How do you handle sex and morality in your writing? Do you struggle with the right way to manage these depictions?

How a Game Led Me to a New Character

Several months ago, I was invited to become one of the early play-testers on the new online storytelling game, Storium. For those of you not familiar with it, Storium is a unique type of game that incorporates the concepts of online collaborative writing and roleplaying with a virtual card game. The basic idea is that one player serves as the “narrator” and writes out scenes in a story, then presents “challenges” that the players need to overcome. The players use their virtual cards to make moves and they write the continuation of the scene from their character’s point of view based on the results of the cards. So, for example, the narrator could play a “werewolf” card and describe in as much detail as they like the way the feral beast is attacking. The player could then play a “silver bullet” card and write a detailed description of their character struggling against the werewolf until they can get a shot off.

Storium recently had a very successful Kickstarter that raised the funds the designers need to expand the game with new settings and additional features. But even while the game remains in its Beta version, I had the chance to participate in some games where I created some unique and fun characters.

I look at a game like Storium the same way I look at the collaborative writing sites I used to play on: as practice for my writing. As I’ve mentioned on the blog before, three of my main characters, Gabby Palladino, Tock Zipporah, and Minori Tsujino, were all originally developed in short stories on collaborative writing sites. I find these sites a useful way to develop a character’s personality, history, and abilities. Then, once I have a strong understanding of who the character is, I can reboot them and incorporate them into the larger stories.

While playing on Storium, I developed two characters. One was Jaden Farrell, a telepath with memory problems because of the way other people’s thoughts and memories drown out her own. The other was Aeldra Dekara, a cybernetically enhanced woman with druidic magic and a body made from a mixture of human, plant, and machine components (along with a dash of badassery). They were both a lot of fun to write, and I realized early on in the game that I would want to develop them further.

I’ve recently been working on writing the first draft of Book Five in my series, and I’m up to 36,000 words and running strong (I’m actually a bit behind schedule, but I still plan to have the draft finished before the end of July). I ended up with some interesting ideas today that made me realize a way I could reboot Aeldra and incorporate her into the current story. It worked out pretty perfectly, since she fills a role in the story that is badly needed. I can’t go into detail because SPOILERS, but suffice to say she’ll make an interesting addition to the team. Some adjustments to the character were necessary, of course, since the Storium game I was playing was a futuristic cyberpunk game and Arcana Revived is a modern urban fantasy setting. But the core of the character–her heart, her personality, and her attitude–remain true to the original.

Games can be a lot more than just a recreational activity. Whether it be a writing-based game like Storium, a roleplaying game like Dungeons & Dragons, or a video game, there’s plenty of ways games can inspire material that can be incorporated into a novel. My own creative writing first got started when I used to write stories based on my D&D games. I’m sure this won’t be the last time I take something out of a game and turn it into something much larger.

Cutting like a Samurai

Most writers are familiar with the phrase “kill your darlings.” To non-writers, this can sound like some kind of cruel joke. Writers know, however, that it means sometimes you need to kill your best words, paragraphs, scenes, or even whole chapters, all in the name of the almighty plot.

Natalie Goldberg may have said it best in her book Writing Down the Bones. The book is filled with advice on the writing process and the psychology of being a writer. In one chapter, she compares the revision process to a battle as a samurai warrior:

“There should be no place in your writing for the ego to manipulate things the way it wants and to become picky. Instead, when you go over your work, become a Samurai, a great warrior with the courage to cut out anything that is not present. Like a Samurai with an empty mind who cuts his opponents in half, be willing to not be sentimental about your writing when you reread it. Look at it with a clear, piercing mind.”

The part about not being “sentimental” is the most important thing to keep in mind when killing your darlings. Sometimes a cut is easy, such as when a chapter is meandering, boring, or pointless to the plot. Other times, however, a cut is much harder. You might have a beautiful, riveting scene, one that makes you cry every time you read it. Yet if that scene isn’t crucial to the story and doesn’t fit in the overall plot, it needs to go.

Consider the example of Tom Bombadil in Lord of the Rings. He was a fun and interesting character, and one of the most memorable ones from the book. Yet he is conspicuously absent from the movies. Why? Well, according to the Wikipedia article on Bombadil, Peter Jackson said he was cut because “he does little to advance the story, and would make the film unnecessarily long. ” If you’ve read the Lord of the Rings books, you should have a hard time arguing with this point. Bombadil is fun. He’s charming. He’s a fascinating character. But he appears only briefly in the books and then has no further impact on the rest of the struggle against Saruman and Sauron. Since he has no real connection to the main plot, he had to be cut, and Peter Jackson did what any samurai had to do.

I’ve been doing a lot of revising lately. The progress bar on the right side of the blog shows the progress on the latest draft of Manifestation, based on input from the independent editor I hired. Part of the edits I’m making have been cuts, and some of them have been hard. In particular, the opening chapters (which I’d already cut down substantially from previous drafts) had to be trimmed. There were some excellent scenes in those chapters, and I really enjoy them. However, they amounted to back story that had no direct relevance on the main plot. It hurt to see some of them go, but I had to be a samurai and cut them out.

I’ve cut a LOT of words all said and done. The earliest draft of Manifestation was 124,420 words. The next revision actually expanded on several scenes to fill in some holes, and ended up at 139,312 words. Then I cut a lot of back story and any slow scenes that were dragging down the plot, and it went down to 112,297 words. The most recent set of cuts have dropped me down to 102,663 words. Yet even while I’m cutting, I have to add a bit here and there. For example, when I cut one chapter, I’ll need to add some elements to the next chapter to make sure there isn’t a hole now because of the missing material. What that means is I can’t just take the longest draft of 139k and subtract the current 102k to see how much I’ve cut. When I added up my individual cuts, they added up to a grand total of 58,391 words. Which means I added back in about 21k of new scenes while I’ve been making all the cuts (and the new scenes are a whole lot cleaner and better than the old ones).

Fortunately, “killing your darlings” doesn’t have to mean killing them dead. You can just “critically wound your darlings” and leave them bleeding in a sub-folder on your computer somewhere. Then you can use them again, such as in a future short story. I’ve written a lot of short stories for the Arcana Revived series, starting with Radiance the story of a young girl who has to cope with change when she undergoes a supernatural transformation. I plan on releasing a number of other short stories later this year. Some of the chapters cut from Manifestation may be adapted into short stories as part of that set. After all, an interesting and fun back story might not fit with the main plot, but it could still be a fascinating standalone piece. Such a piece could serve as an origin story for a character, revealing important pieces of their history. By using a cut scene as a short story like this, your “dead darlings” can be brought back from the grave and given a new life.

Writing is hard. Revisions are hard. Some of my writer friends say they think the first draft is the hardest. I disagree. You don’t need to kill your darlings in the first draft. Unless you can keep a cold, controlled samurai view of your work, revisions end up being the hardest part.

Friendships Among Your Characters

A lot of people talk about romantic relationships in their writing. Romance is certainly a popular genre, and one a lot of my friends write in. I’ve written about my thoughts on romantic relationships in books before, in particular the question of whether a romance should be followed until death does them part.

Yet there’s another type of relationship I don’t tend to see as many people talking about: friendships. While I’m sure there are plenty of great books out there that are focused purely on friendships instead of romantic relationships, I don’t tend to see them often. Usually a friendship is developed more on the side of the main plot, rather than being the focus.

I’ve been thinking about friendships in writing a lot lately because I’m developing one in my own novels. While the friendship would certainly be a subplot instead of part of the main plot, it’s still an element I’ve put a lot of thought into developing. There’s a few certain specific concepts I’ve been exploring, each of which has different variables worth considering.

The specific friendship I’m talking about is between two of my main characters, Tock Zipporah and Maelyssa Southeby. They’ve got quite a bit in common: they’re both teenage girls who have developed magical powers, they both dislike authority figures, they both roll with a tough crowd, and they both enjoy excitement and wild rides (Mae is a skater and Tock likes to cruise in arcane-powered vehicles of her own design).

Of course, your novel might not contain these supernatural elements. You might write about detectives solving crimes. Soldiers returning home from war. Explorers on an interstellar spacecraft. Llamas procrastinating by drinking coffee. But whatever your story is, the focus should be on the characters.

So what elements will affect the development of a friendship between your characters? One question is “What is the basis of their friendship?” This question can help you know whether the friendship is a key part of your story or just part of another plot element. For example, many romance novels have a friendship story on the side, usually between the female main character and her best friend. These kinds of friendships fail the Bechdel Test, which asks the following:

1. Does the story have to have at least two women in it?
2. Who talk to each other?
3. About something besides a man?

It’s #3 on this list that will make the difference between a friendship that’s there to be a friendship versus a friendship that’s there to support the romance plot. Usually, the best friend in a romance novel is someone for the main character to talk to about her new boyfriend, someone to support her after the inevitable fight that almost breaks the romance up, and possibly someone to backstab her somewhere along the way (such as by revealing a dirty little secret or trying to seduce the main character’s love interest). In a situation like this, the friendship doesn’t have anything to stand on by itself.

I wanted to make sure Tock and Mae’s friendship existed independently. So I made sure to develop it based on their personalities and interests and goals, rather than on any external variables. So far, they’ve never once talked about a man or each other’s love lives (though I’m sure they could in the future, after their friendship has been firmly established). They show genuine, platonic affection for each other. They’ve supported each other through some serious tough times. And they have a really good rapport, so that when you see their interactions on the page, you should really feel that they’re true friends.

Of course, not all my characters have developed as strong of a friendship as Tock and Mae have. For instance, Gabby Palladino and Maria Vasquez are good friends as well, but their friendship hasn’t gotten quite as much development. That might be because there was always a greater focus on Gabby’s relationship with her main love interest, Callia Gainsborough. Which means that Gabby and Maria’s friendship might have a harder time passing the Bechdel Test.

And I think another interesting type of friendship to explore would be a platonic friendship between a guy and a girl. Usually, male/female friendships have some underlying sexual tension and the assumption (or hope) that they’ll eventually get together. Just look at something like the Harry Potter series and how many people ‘shipped Harry and Hermione (including, it later turned out, the author herself). A lot of studies have shown that male/female friendships are rare, and the majority of the time one person or the other is secretly attracted to their friend. Despite this, it could be interesting to explore a legitimate friendship with no romantic or sexual aspects whatsoever. Though odds are, your readers will still ‘ship the characters anyway (just like some will probably ‘ship Mae and Tock, even though that’ll never happen).

There’s probably a lot of other variables that go into a good literary friendship. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts, along with any other examples of well-developed friendships in the books you’ve read.

Raising the Stakes

I recently read the book Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass. In it, Maass discusses a number of techniques that will make a novel more compelling, more memorable, and more likely to achieve higher levels of success. One of those techniques is raising the stakes: making sure that there is a lot at risk in your story and that the end results of the characters’ actions really matter in a way that has consequences and repercussions.

So how do you raise the stakes in your story? One of the first things you can do is to give your characters well-rounded lives, goals, and things to lose. A soldier is interesting. A soldier who comes from a long line of military tradition and a father who has high expectations of him is even more interesting. So is one with a child about to be born back home, a civilian job to return to, and aspirations for the future after being discharged. The more of these elements there are in a character’s life, the more reason the reader has to care whether or not this soldier survives the war.

There is also a difference between that character’s personal stakes, and the grander stakes for the rest of the world (such as who will win the war).

Maass suggests asking yourself, “How can this matter more?” and “How could things get worse?” He also says you should make your characters suffer.

Most writers I know rather enjoy making characters suffer. Most of my own stories make my characters suffer quite a bit as well. After all, the higher you raise the stakes, the further there is to fall. In a romance story, the high stakes come from the question of whether the main character’s relationship will succeed or fail. You can raise those stakes even higher with harsher consequences. What if, instead of just being worried that the main character and their love interest will break up, there is suddenly the risk of the love interest dying? Or the characters having to sacrifice their jobs, their friends, or their families in order to be together? When the characters have more at risk than just each other, the stakes are higher, and the potential suffering if things fall apart is that much worse.

Another fun way to raise the stakes is to add the weight of responsibility to a character’s  heart and mind. This is one of the reasons Doctor Who is such a compelling series. Many of the episodes already have high stakes, where entire worlds are threatened and billions of lives are at stake. But we don’t just watch to see these worlds get saved. We watch because the Doctor is a character with the weight of the entire universe on his shoulders. He feels personally responsible for everything that happens. Not because any of it is his fault. Not because anyone asks him to help. But simply because he’s the Doctor.

This takes the idea of raising the stakes, and instead of expanding those stakes outward, it takes them inward. The consequences your character might face don’t need to be world-shattering battles, epic wars, magical apocalypses, and situations where the fate of the universe is at stake. It can be something as simple as winning a spelling bee, and yet the stakes can still be grand and the consequences disastrous if the character takes the feeling of responsibility deep enough.

You can expand on this type of internal stakes by giving a character a personal code. Someone who refuses to compromise their integrity can be far more interesting than someone who is willing to cheat and take shortcuts. Especially if the character suffers for their choices when they refuse to give in. I discussed this idea on the blog awhile back when talking about character relationships and whether we should follow them to the end of their lives. Sometimes, stories that end in death can be the most compelling ones, and that death can resonate even stronger when it’s something the character brings upon themselves for a greater cause.

Imagine a politician who refuses to give in to bribery, even though it means she loses the election. Or a sports player who refuses to use performance enhancers, and has to deal with coming in second because they wouldn’t compromise. Or a soldier who values life so much that they refuse to kill anyone, even when defending the innocent. A struggle can reach new heights of tension and danger when a character’s own morals hamper them, and they know their path would be easier if they just did what they have to do. Or, take a character like Jack Bauer, who does do whatever it takes, but ends up losing everything, including his freedom, as a result of his actions.

Writing these kinds of characters can be difficult. But maybe, the harder it is for you to write, the harder it will be for the characters to win, and that means the stakes are high. Keep raising them, and make sure that your story is the most compelling that it can be.

Postcard from the Blog

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Image Credit:

Dear Blog Reader,

Hello, and greetings from the blog! It’s been a great trip so far. The flight in was a bit of a nuisance, and the TSA had to strip-search my categories and tags before I was allowed on board (shows them though–I snuck some Cubans in through the private pages).

The weather is nice. Can’t complain. And I’m getting a steady flow of daily pageviews, so it was well worth the price of admission. I also picked up some nice souvenirs at the gift shop. You wouldn’t believe the prices on the t-shirts and key chains!

Gotta run for now. There’s a luau down in the comments section, and guess who’s holding the limbo bar?

Wish you were here!

Yours, from the sunny island of


P.S. Say hello to Cairn Rodrigues for me. The trip was her idea!