Sunday, March 1, 2009

Character Motivation and personal stakes

It's been a rough week, not just at work or school, but general all around things so I was glad to get a question, y'know--that had nothing to do with other people going on vacation, me covering shifts or my kid's car blowing up and the troopers wondering why he was standing on the side of the road, beating a truck with a rock. He said he didn't have a baseball bat, or he would have smashed the windows. All that money.

An obsession with unfix-able cars runs in the family.

But character motivation and stakes? That's me up on my soapbox waving my arms, not shaking my fists at life.

He says a character's personal stakes are more than what the hero wants to do. They illustrate why. So what's the difference between a character's motivation and her personal stake? Is the personal stake a deeper motivation that drives the character? Is it what the character is risking in order to reach a goal/resolve a conflict/etc?

Yes, I think in this, he's right, but I don't think he explains a lot of his stuff in the depth it needs. It's a lot of really broad brushwork. But before I explain why I think so, let's look at the other part of the question.

I asked what the difference is between motivation and personal stakes. And other people defined personal stakes as what the character will lose. And to raise the stakes the character is put in situations that could result in her losing her personal stake/ the thing she's trying to hold onto(?). This makes sense to me when I think about one character, but not the other.

As I jump up on my soapbox (the blue one for everyday) I want to be fair and say I've read a lot of craft books. If it's there, if I have the chance, I'll read everything. Hell--I read cereal boxes and ads. Twice, if I'm bored.

A lot of people have been talking about the Maass book, and yeah--I read that too, a good long time ago when I thought it was the hottest thing since sliced bread and I just had to have a copy. I sold it when I realized it was pretty much a compilation of a bunch of Writer's Digest books rolled into one. Imho, the best part is the checklist at the end of each chapter. Just to make sure I wasn't having one of those historical blackout things, y'know--where you read something and interpret it in light of things you know now? I went over to the library and re-borrowed it.

The checklists are still the best part.

It's not as deep as I remember it being. The thing I took away from it was "Go Big". That I still believe in, and it's worth the price of admission. If you're going to do something, go big, and go large, and sometimes--well, I forget. You get all caught up in the little picture and forget to take it over the top. That's a good piece of advice right there.

But the whole stakes thing? It's just not well explained. And maybe some of those naysayers are right. (I read reviews too, and articles--and no matter what I do, I can't find Maass's "famous" pseudonyms, although I did find out he was a Candlelight Ecstacy author back in the late eighties, which makes sense because he started out editing there.)

Maass in his own words...

When I was getting my agency going in the 80’s, I supported myself writing fiction. It was romance at first, including one of the launch novels for Silhouette Books, and later young adult, including four in a long-running series about a famous girl detective. I enjoyed writing those novels (14 in all), and learned a lot.

Maass' breakout novel was "Writing a Breakout Novel"

Stakes, imho--are like the person who asked me says, a really deep internal motivation. For some people, depending on interpretation, it's what the character stands to lose if he or she loses. It's just a different way of looking at things because different things mean different stuff to different people (and yes, that's a lot of different)

For me, it's buy-in. And buy-in is internal. Like Bujold says in Shards of Honor, a price is something you pay, and a cost is what they take from you.


say a woman out on her own, no husband, no means of support other than herself is out on her own for the first time in decades--she has a kid and a crappy job. She also has a time-line. In less than two years she has to be self-supporting and able to take care, not only of herself, but her child.

So she goes back to school with no guarantee school, with the economy the way it is--will be the answer.

In one scenario, that person's stake is money, she wants to support her kid. She has serious stakes. If she loses, she loses it all. If you want to jack the stakes, make it so someone will come and take her kid away at the end of the two years. Make it hurt. Like Maass says, it speaks to the human condition. What mother hasn't worried about her children?

I guess what I'm saying is it's too broad. It's too--as a screenwriter would say--on the nose. It's out there and obvious, but yes, lots of people will read it, because not everyone is looking for something deep. Lots of people want beach reading, or light feel good stuff to take their minds off other stuff. So the whole question is simply a matter of how the writer (who in their own way is just as much of a product of environment and background as their characters) interprets the chapter.

In an internal motivation way? Then you realize, it's not just the money--it's not just her kid, it's a lot of things that only kinda sorta touch on money. It's self-respect and determination, fear that she can't, and fear that she can. It's worry, and fighting herself, blind faith, and more fear that maybe she did need a man, and worry (more worry) that she can't be the person who fixes things. It's all the emotions and complications that come out of the situation she was in, and the situation she's in now, and what might happen in the future.

If you say stakes to me, it's not just a woman wanting to provide for her kid, it's the whole crazy mishmash of emotional investment that person has sunk into something she wants for a lot of reasons, beyond the obvious.

And you can apply that or not apply it to a lot of things. It's what gets resonance going. It's why in a book about a kid who wants a cat, in one book, it can be about a kid who wants a cat.

And his stake is the cat, he wants the cat--maybe he'll get a cat if he earns enough money for a cat, and learns how to take care of a cat. And sure--you can up the stakes for the kid by making the journey to cat-dom harder if not impossible. But it's just surface stuff. It's stuff the kid is "paying out" to get the cat.

But if you take the kid and make the cat a symbol of his inner motivation--like maybe his grandmother died and she had this cat, and he's been verbally abused all his life, and his grandmother listened to him and always told him he was worthwhile, and she had this cat. So now in a crappy environment, he's trying to hold on to his sense of self-worth, and he's fighting for a cat, because to him, a cat is a symbol of his grandmother and he's fighting for a sense of self. In a very real sense, if he can't get that cat--he'll die.

Surface...or internal.

Stakes are just how deep you want to go, so yes--they can be both something the character will lose. Or something so integral to the character and they "have" to have, when you get your knife in there and cut it away--there is a cost.


deanna said...

I read Maass' book, years ago, in the library waiting for my kids to use the computer, since we didn't yet have internet.

I appreciate your distinctions. I came to think that at a least a few authors who wrote about writing a great novel hadn't really written a great novel.

You may not wish to think about it, but I hope the car situation works out okay. And that the extra shifts are over. Shall I send chocolate?

Alice Audrey said...

Very well said. It puts finding the depth of a book in perspective.

jodi said...

Deanna, I spent two years booking time at the library. I spent so much time there and bought so many books at the Friends of the Library bookstore. It was great.

yes, many people who write books about writing don't. I think it's because for some people, it's easier to teach. Screenwriters are like that too.

The car situation is going well--for today. No phone calls and everyone got home in one piece.

Thank you on the chocoalte, but to celebrate, I bought three bags of the cheap wal-mart brand peanut butter cups. They're delicious. :)

Hi Alice, thank you. I remember not long ago when I'd have gone off not thinking about other people's opinions. (I think I'm getting older)

Jeanna said...

About the car, your family and me both. That is a great image with the rock though, are you baking cakes with rocks in them or is everyone on the right side of the law now.
I don't know how you have all that patience not to mention make the time to read all those craft books.
The stakes thing is the same in acting and can turn something wandering dull into a character with strength and purpose.