The fight for freedom—good versus evil—is a major theme in most novels, whether your MC is battling street thugs, zombies or intergalactic wizards. But freedom is such an enormous concept that it can be overwhelming to capture on the page. What does it truly mean to our characters?
Struggles rarely begin over something as immeasurable as the fate of the universe. Usually, they start closer to home and closer to heart. The trick is to figure out what—or who—your characters are fighting for and anchor their emotions, motivations and actions to that one specific rallying cry.
- Katniss didn’t fight to start a rebellion or free Panem. She fought to save her sister and, later, Peeta.
- Benjamin Martin in The Patriot doesn’t join the revolution because he wants an independent country. He joins because the troops kill his son.
- The Pevensies didn’t stay in Narnia just to help Aslan. They wanted to find their brother.
By narrowing the scope and making the fight more personal for your characters, you actually heighten the stakes for the reader. It might be hard for us to relate to a character who’s responsible for saving millions of lives, but we all know what it feels like to worry about protecting family and friends.
While specific and personal are powerful tools when setting stakes, the opposite is true for the consequences of battle. The bigger, the better. The more people affected, the more sweeping your story becomes. Your plot helps you determine how to build the action to move from personal stakes to fate-of-the-universe impact.
TV’s Supernatural is a great example of building consequences. During the first season, the brothers’ main focus is killing the demon that killed their mother. The stakes are extremely personal and the consequences of failure really only affect the two of them. However, as the seasons progress, the brothers’ actions affect more and more of their friends’ lives…then the fate of Earth…then the fate of Heaven, Hell and Earth. It keeps growing, yet it all ties back to those original personal stakes.
Battles wouldn’t be nearly as exciting and freedom wouldn’t taste nearly as sweet if we didn’t have crafty villains to stand against the heroes. A well-written bad guy is sinfully fun to read. One way to make sure your villains measure up is to limit their mistakes. Sometimes writers allow their bad guys to make so many sloppy mistakes it borders on laziness. The hero always gets the lucky break just when he or she needs it.
But what if they didn’t?
What if you put as much strategy into your opponent’s battle planning as you did to the good guys’? It ups the ante and the outcome becomes less predictable, like two skilled chess players facing off. I think we all know the good guys will win in the end (with some exceptions), but at what cost? That question is what keeps readers turning pages.
Next time you’re in “battle mode,” keep these three factors in mind. And be sure to thank any military folks (US and others) you see. We may write about being on the frontlines of the fight for freedom, but they live it each day.