Yes, you read that title right. Exposing the character can risk the attachments the reader has made to your protagonist, but also increase their value.
Risk makes life exciting and frustrating all at once. Maybe you put your heart on the line and come away with ache. Perhaps you like the thrill of gambling? Risk is inherent in almost everything we do, but it is negligible. When you get in the car to go grocery shopping, you run the risk of getting into a motor vehicle accident. But how does this translate to your character?
Most books are about a journey of some sort, like Frodo in Lord of the Rings, and the journey is fraught with peril. Two movies or shows come to mind when we think risk to character. The first is The Empire Strikes Back. Luke fought at the battle of Hoth, but you were pretty sure he would survive. How about when he rushes off to face Vader? Yes, you might have thought so then if not for the dark warning Yoda gave Obi-Wan as Luke launches into the sky. When Yoda’s face glows from the light of the X-wing’s engines, Kenobi says, “That boy is our last hope.” To which Yoda utters the terrible line, “No, there is another. Now, matters are worse.” What George Lucas did with those two simple lines makes the viewer go, “Oh, crap, Luke’s gonna die!” Granted, this is PG version of risk, but it still hits the mark with kids and first-time viewers.
A note worthy entry is by another man named George. The book series and TV show, Game of Thrones invented risk to our favorite fellows. The pilot episode set the tone for the entire series with a boy thrown from the tower. Bran lived but was crippled for life. Not only that, but half way through the first season, Ned Stark is wounded in combat and Dany’s brother is given a golden crown fit for a king. Then, they kill off the protagonist for the first season, Ned Stark. These simple yet effective injuries and deaths set the mood for the whole show, and the viewer knows no one is safe.
So, let’s start with the adage of, “Kill your darlings.” In this context, we aren’t talking about passages in your writing that mean a lot to you, but specifically at your characters. I’m not advocating to kill them all, though you certainly may. Actually, that would be an interesting twist to the whole book. Your characters need to suffer to grow. Is it emotional? Did someone they care for spurn them? Did they lose a family member? What about mental? Are they training in extreme and harsh environments? Did they suffer a nervous break? Physical suffering can manifest from a plethora of incidents. Did they lose an arm? Perhaps they were captured and turned into a slave? Were they starved?
These aspects are the budding points for your character. They need to face crisis and adversity. How did they overcome it? Perhaps they never did, not fully, which would be an awesome way for the problem to linger throughout a series. An excellent way to let doubt enter the mind of your reader is to put your character into a near impossible situation. They can overcome it with cunning, brute strength, patience, but mayhaps your lead doesn’t possess those aspects. Can the impulsive soldier sit by and wait? Can the weak man defeat an adversary with colossal strength? Just don’t let them get away unscathed.
I have started reading a stellar trilogy, and the first book is A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas. In the first chapter, she set the tone for risk. Feyre is hunting in the woods, close to the fae border. It’s the dead of winter, she’s starving, and game is scarce. But how does she up the stakes? A giant wolf prowls in the shadows, bigger than she’s ever seen. Feyre must decide to let the wolf eat the deer she was about to kill or take on the wolf and hopefully salvage the doe. This fateful encounter changes the entire course of her life.
So, that’s an immediate danger, but there are others to utilize which can add tension. Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind and A Wise Man’s Fear comes to mind with Kvothe. This protagonist can be a bit hot-headed at times which fuels his feud with Ambrose Jakis, a wealthy but distant nobleman. With resources and connections the main character does not have, Ambrose makes life troublesome in creative and far-reaching ways. Ambrose is actively gunning for him, which makes tension throughout the story, and leaves you wondering where and when the other shoe will drop.
What are some other ways you can add risk to individuals of your story? How do we rachet up the tension? More often than not, if you can play to real elements or factual but historical elements like the superstition of witchcraft, it gives your story more weight, especially in the proper setting. While plot and character are very important aspects of your story, let us not forget this marvelous part which lends credibility to other aspects of your book. In the meantime, keep your finger clacking.
If you enjoyed this content or you’re an avid, epic fantasy reader, check out my book, The Bearer of Secrets, on Amazon. It’s available on Kindle Unlimited, eBook, and print.