Sunday, March 23, 2008

Stakes, not Steak, for your Hero (unless it's for a black eye)

Becky Levine was happily going about her life when, in a moment of "liquid time", she turned around to discover she had been volunteered to Suspense Novelist as a guest blogger by Lee Lofland. To Becky's credit, she didn't miss a beat and stepped up to the plate.

To continue with the clich├ęs (me, not Becky) . . . drumroll, please . . .

Becky Levine is a writer living in California’s Santa Cruz mountains with her husband and son. She has finished her first middle-grade mystery for kids and is currently looking for an agent. She is the co-author (with Lee Lofland ) of The Everything Kids I Want to be A Police Officer Book, forthcoming from Adams Media. Becky also does freelance manuscript editing, helping other writers take their books to the next level. Visit Becky’s blog and her website.

What’s at Stake for your Hero? by Becky Levine

The other day, on my own blog, I was talking about the first scene. The very first scene of a book. You know, the one that’s sooooo easy? Yeah, right!

Jeannine Atkins, author of Anne Hutchinson’s Way, commented about how this first scene goes for her. She talked about how it’s always hard to write, how she has to go back and revise it a gazillion times, trying to get it just right. Then she mentioned the first scene of her current WIP. She has to get her main character, a young girl, ready to help rule a city.

Holy Moly!

That’s some job—for the writer and for the character. When I saw Jeannine’s comment, I instantly wanted to read her book. Why? Because she’s creating a character with something to lose.

Just think about it. This girl has to help govern a city. What if she can’t? What if she doesn’t want to? What if some other horrible person is lurking in the wings, waiting for a chance to take over? Can you just feel the tension mounting in your brain? Your stomach churning?

This is what we, as writers, have to do. We have to make sure that our heroes have a reason to succeed. A big reason.

A lot of writing teachers talk about identifying with the hero. You can do this by making your character have some familiar traits—maybe he’s a little bit shy, or she’s kind of clumsy. You can give your hero a goal. Maybe he really wants to make the best gumbo west of the Mississippi; maybe she wants to sing as beautifully as Joan Baez. This is good. Most readers have their own dreams and will recognize desire as a familiar emotion. Letting them see a bit of themselves in your character will catch their interest.

You won’t have them completely, though. A mild character flaw can make the reader like your hero, and a goal can get them interested. Neither of these is enough, though, to keep the reader hooked and turning pages. Neither is enough to keep the reader in suspense.

To do that, you have to ask a question.

And that question is...what will happen to the character if he doesn’t succeed? What if, when the hero is at the grocery store, his shyness won’t let him ask for the freshest okra? What if your clumsy hero knocks over the vocal instructor’s favorite vase, and he refuses to give her any more lessons.

Yes, I’m being silly. The question, though, and the answer, are serious. When you start out thinking about your hero, you usually know what he or she wants. Do you know, though, what failure will mean? What disaster—physical and emotional—will hit the story if your hero doesn’t get what he wants? If your detective can’t stop the murderer, someone else will die. Okay. Go further. What will that second death do to your hero? Will he lose his job? Will she have to ask her slimy ex-husband for more child support? Will he sink back into the deep depression he’s been fighting all along?

What is at stake?

It’s your job, as a writer, to figure it out and to put it on the page. You owe it to your hero...and to your readers.


I think that's why being a suspense novelist is so cool—our brains are automatically wired to make bad things happen. And we have so much to choose from! (Makes my husband wonder about me at times.)

Becky, my sincere thanks for taking the time to prepare something for Suspense Novelist.

It's all better with friends.


  1. Thanks for posting this. I believe it is important to remember that our characters have to live and breathe on the page.

  2. Definitely important. Never easy, but worth it!

    Glad you enjoyed the post.

  3. Hey, Becky. See what happens when you're not looking.

    You know, the hero in the story I'm working on now has a number of flaws, but not all of them are necessarily bad characteristics. In fact, some people might consider one or two of the traits charming. Unfortunately, to him, they're thorns in his side.

  4. Hey, Lee!

    Flaws aren't at all necessarily bad things. They're the things that make the hero LESS perfect, give him or her challenges from within himself or herself. They make the hero a lot more interesting to the reader!

  5. Becky,
    This is a great post. It definitely gives me something to think about in my writing. Thanks!