I was taking a break the other day from my computer, when I started rifling through “Writing The Breakout Novel” by Donald Maass, and found this quote:
“We admire principled people…To put a principled person at risk is to raise the stakes in your story to a higher degree.
Better still is to test that individual’s principles to the utmost.”
This probably isn’t the shiniest gem that can be pulled from Maass’ book. (It's awesome. Read it. He'll rock your world.) But anyway, the quote leapt out to me, because Maass eloquently answered a question I have unconsciously wondered: what does it mean to challenge a character?
This became a prominent issue for me while writing MIRRORPASS. My main character, Aria, goes through an awful lot. She is challenged nonstop by physical threats, emotional struggles, by her own internal drive. Her stakes are intensely high.
But I started to get this odd feeling about her, this niggling sensation that something was off. I felt too secure. From the very beginning, I planned for Aria to succeed. When I tried to challenge her, I felt a bit like an evil puppet-master behind the scenes cackling, “there, that should be horrible enough! No one will guess how I’ll get her out of this one. No one. It’s brilliant!”
The higher I raised Aria’s stakes, the more I challenged her, the more like this I felt. As if it wasn’t a challenge at all.
According to the Maass quote above, I was doing part A: Testing a principled person. I’d put Aria at risk, threatened everything she fought for, forced her to struggle after every dream. I had that part down in aces.
But Maass goes on. He says there’s a part B. After testing a principled person, you next have to test that person’s principles. You can test who they are, not just what they have to face.
I took me a while to have this epiphany. Poor Aria, I accidentally trapped her at the far end of an hanger while the automatic door was five seconds from grinding shut. I had planned to give her just enough time for an escape. I had also planned on going to bed two hours earlier. So for whatever reason, lack of sleep or plain carelessness, Aria was stuck in this situation--(and note that the following excerpt has bits redacted for brevity)--
With an agonizing gasp, Aria pulled herself onto the roof of the control tower. There she lay for a moment. Gasping. Weeping. All around her, the world had gone mad. The amber lights zapped in endless waves across her eyes. When she rolled onto her stomach, she could see that her plan really had worked—the entire establishment was converged on this end of the hanger...
[But] her plan had worked too well. There was only a man’s height of space left beneath the hanger door, and even as she watched, it slowly crept closed.
“It’s too late.”
Her mind leaked in exhaustion.
“I really thought I could make it, but it’s too late.”
Her mouth burned with blood. She’d made it. But she could never make it back out.
Don’t give up.
She wanted to.
In that moment, I had my epiphany. This wasn’t just a high-stakes situation. This was a test of who Aria was; what she believed in, and how strongly she believed it. Never before had I considered that Aria might come to a place where she was so worn and broken down, she might not care anymore. A place where continuing on hurt more than loosing everything that mattered to her.
And I think this is what Donald Maass was talking about. Nothing I could do to Aria physically would ever match this threat of character. I had raised her stakes "to the utmost." Whatever Aria chose next, good or bad, it would change her permanently.
This works well from a reader's standpoint, too. Security is important in a story. Readers should have a deep faith in the MC and her struggle; they should trust there are lines the MC will never let herself cross—which is another way of saying there are lines the author will never let the MC cross.
It can be a hard balance, sometimes, to keep the reader's trust while threatening what they believe about a character. But it seems like Donald Maass discovered the technique that makes this work.
So you guys tell me what you think about challenging a character's principles. Yes, no? Do you have a different interpretation of the quote? Opinions are welcomed.