Freedom Fighters

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?

Personal Stakes
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.

Broad Consequences
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.

Worthy Opponents
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.


  1. These are excellent points to keep in mind. I especially agree in putting in the same thought, time and work into our antagonists. You are so right, when the protagonist and antagonist are evenly matched, the outcome is unclear - and that keeps me turning pages every time.

  2. I made the mistake early on in my novel of lacking a narrow focus and I kept struggling to find a reason for my characters' actions. By making it personal, the characters suddenly came to life in a whole new way.

    There's nothing more engaging than a clever and manipulative antagonist who is every bit as determined as the protagonist. I don't want to see an antagonist make silly, ultimately self-destructive mistakes. Make it a battle royale!

  3. Thanks guys! It's always easier said than done, isn't it?

    To nail my characters' motivations for my latest WIP, I literally made a list of the things in my own life I'd be willing to fight for. It was incredibly revealing, and I incorporated those ideas in the novel.

  4. That's a really interesting idea! I may give that a go for my next project :D

  5. Completely agree with your points, especially about making the opponent/antagonist worthy. This mostly happens in movies, but I hate it when the "bad guy" has the "good guy" in some trap and doesn't proceed to kill him/her. The bad guy just talks and talks and THEN tries to kill the good guy, at which point there's a Deus ex machina and the good guy magically escapes. Then I'm thinking, "Really?? Your villain wants to eliminate the good guy, yet he's so dumb that he won't get rid of him as soon as possible?" That ALWAYS makes me angry.

  6. GK - It always makes me think of Syndrome (the bad guy in the Incredibles) when he says "You caught me monologuing!" Why do villains do that?!? ;)