“We can change. People say we can't, but we do when the the stakes or the pain is high enough.” ― Anne Lamott
Writing teachers often explain that characters have wants, and that those wants determine the story. An external want is something that a character is determined to do or achieve, and this drives the plot action. An internal want often results from a psychological wound, and determines the character’s emotional arc. (For example, a suspicious person who has been the victim of enormous betrayal might subconsciously want to be able to trust. The story arc would show the character changing enough to trust.)
Usually, characters don’t want to change. In fact, they often go to extraordinary lengths in their attempt to get their (external) want without changing anything about themselves. But our storytelling tradition demands change—or failure. So—how do you make a character finally willing to change?
The answer lies in the stakes.
Whenever my students are stuck in a story, I ask them to imagine their stakes. David Mamet claims that all scenes should be able to answer three questions:
- Who wants what from whom?
- What happens if they don’t get it?
- Why now?
Likewise, all stories should be able to answer this. What will happen if Frodo doesn’t get the One Ring to Mordor? What will happen if Dorothy can’t get back home? What will happen if Harry Potter fails to defeat Voldemort?
When the reader understands what a potential failure means, they understand why the threat is big enough to make a Hobbit into a hero, or a simple “small and meek” girl from Kansas as powerful as a wizard, or a wizard into a legend.
My friend Helen says, “Plot is what happens. Character is why you care.” And stakes are why the character cares. If you’re stuck in your story, try considering your protagonist’s failure…and then make them change.
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