I've written several chapters of a (fiction) story. I wasn't happy so I spent some time reading about fiction, and trying to figure out what was wrong with it. I came to the conclusion that, while the main character is in danger, I have not done enough to build up: want, obstacle, and struggle.

First, I need to build up the character's 'want'. In my story there is a small isolated town, and someone has been killed in it. The main character is scared, and "wants" to survive, though there is no demonstrated threat to him, yet. It does not seem like this vague, "he's scared and wants to get out of there but can't" is good enough want, as the story still seems lifeless.

What can I do to build up "want" for the character, given this scenario? Someone elsewhere writes that a character's desire for survival may not be enough, that one may need to increase the reader's empathy with the character (his example was to give the character a wife or daughter.)

The story is now roughly: guy goes to a very small town, guy gets stuck in the town, someone gets killed. Guy is interested in leaving. The fact is, the killer is after the guy, but the guy doesn't know it yet, and won't know it for awhile.

If I can supply any more details, please let me know.


The reader doesn't know the killer is directly after him, yet. The events are: 1) protagonist gets to an isolated, small town. 2) the killer has a reason for not wanting him there. 3) kills someone as part of the process of getting the protagonist himself killed (it's complicated...), 4) the killer finds out that his plan didn't work, so will go after the protagonist in another way. Right after step 3 is where things get boring, and where I decided to stop and figure out how to make things sound better.

  • One caveat: Please do not give the person a spouse or child for the sole purpose of killing said spouse or child in order to raise the stakes for the character. Dec 23, 2015 at 11:01
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    And rather than a wife or daughter, consider a brother, a pet, a valued object (a watch, car, photo, ...), or anything else the character cares about. Dec 23, 2015 at 20:41
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    @KenMohnkern - I don't get it.. why do we need a family member / object / pet for the character to care about, in order for the reader to care about the character? Why won't the reader care about the character itself? Dec 23, 2015 at 20:51
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    Showing us what the character cares about humanizes him. We connect with him easier. It can also be a way to introduce the character's vulnerability: he has a fight with his brother, he loses his watch, the bad guy threatens his family. These things can all throw him off his game. And that connection can make us empathize and root for him. Dec 23, 2015 at 20:57

6 Answers 6


It sounds like you are missing two major parts of story development: Character and Stakes. These two topics could fill two small books, so I'll try to give you the run-down below.

The purpose of Character Development is to get the reader to care about the protagonist. If the reader doesn't care about who he's reading, what's stopping him from closing the book?

The purpose of Stakes is to increase the worth of the main conflict not only to the character, but to the reader. Keep in mind that all the development you do is for the reader. You aren't trying to make a better story, get that out of your head right away. You're trying to make a better story for the reader, so that he will keep reading. With that in mind:

The first step in developing your main character is giving him strength. This strength is usually a quality - discard any ideas of increasing his worth by giving him family members, that's preposterous. This quality can be anything, as long as it is something the reader could hope to attain. Honesty, loyalty, tenacity, kindness... the list is endless. It could also just be a 'little' thing, like loving a daughter or sibling. As long as the reader feels the heart-felt tenderness of that love, it works. Essentially, strength gives the reader a reason to root for the protagonist.

The next part of character development is inner conflict. You want your character to be realistic, and in this case that means he needs an element of inner turmoil. Without this, he comes across as too sure of himself. He needs to doubt.

I like to think of inner conflict as something that pulls the protagonist in two opposite directions at the same time, usually surfacing as a battle between what is needed and what is desired. However, it can also surface as a battle between two needs, neither of which are desired. (Having it surface as a battle between two desires, neither of which are needed, generally doesn't work so well.) For example, the protagonist may need to make a choice between two unpleasant choices. Or he may need to make a choice between keeping what he loves and doing what is right. Or a choice between honoring his code or doing what is needed.

Inner Conflict is almost always strongest when one of the choices is linked to the main goal, and the other side is linked to not completing it. In your example, the protagonist could easily want to leave the small town, but something is holding him back (feeling of duty to root out the killer, feeling of protection to someone he loves who won't leave, etc.)

There are two kinds of stakes: public and private. A stake is what could be lost if the protagonist fails in whatever it is he is trying to do. A private stake is what the hero would lose. A public stake is what the world of the novel (in this case, likely your isolated town) would lose. You need a combination of high public stakes and deep personal stakes to make this work.

High public stakes are easy to invent. The world will end! We'll all die! What you need to focus on is how those things come about. You need to be detailed just enough so that the reader feels it is real. This doesn't mean you throw a bunch of medical terms at him to explain how a plague works. It means you know how the plague works, and then use just a few terms to give your reader the sense that this is real. If you know how something works, you won't need to explain it: it will show in your writing. Details are the key to public stakes.

Deep personal/private stakes concern your characters, and what they would lose if the protagonist fails. You can determine when your personal stakes are deep enough by asking yourself the question: If my hero doesn't (insert goal here), then what would he lose? What would be lost? A job? Security? A life? Do NOT fall back on putting your protagonist's life at threat. Once, it was enough, but no longer, not with people on TV running for their life half a million times a day. You have to put something deeper at risk: you have to threaten the protagonist's very being.

Remember when I talked about strength? Put that at risk. If the hero's strength is an inherent part of who he is, you are no longer simply threatening to destroy his life. You are threatening to destroy him, and the very reason the reader cares about him. That makes your reader heavily invested in your novel.

Another way to do this is to give your hero a code or belief that he adheres to. This code doesn't even have to be right or moral. It can be as twisted as you want, but the hero has to believe in and adhere to it. If this is the case, you can put that at risk. Maybe the killer is after the hero, and to defeat him, the hero will have to do things his code forbids. Boom! Strength, inner conflict, and personal stakes in one line. In this example, the hero's code would take the place of strength (as long as it is a moral code). Not that adding additional strength is a bad idea.

A great example of threatening the hero's essence like this are the Perry Mason novels. With each case, Perry Mason feels that his client is innocent, and sticks to that belief no matter what.

These two things: stakes and character development, will, I believe, give your story the life it's been missing.


Your problem is that you don't know your character. Until you know what drives the protagonist, you can't know his obstacles and so you can't establish the tension you need.

I had a book recommended on this site called Monkeys and Typewriters that's helping me to understand this.


OK, I think I have the roles within your story correct, but I'll restate them so that you can correct me if I'm wrong:


Goes to a small town, and later wants to leave but can't. Knows that someone else in the town has died, thinks that they may or may not be next.


Doesn't want the protagonist in the town, so kills someone else in the town for an unspecified reason in order to get rid of the protagonist. This doesn't work, so now wants to kill the protagonist.


Knows that there is a killer, but doesn't know that the killer is after the protagonist. Knows that the protagonist wants to survive this ordeal, and knows that the protagonist is stuck there and why.

You could always make your protagonist into someone who is generally anxious/ obsessive/ paranoid. Perhaps when they arrive into the town they visit the pharmacy and because of the strange look they receive off of the pharmacist they believe that they may have swapped the medicine they needed for poison/ placebos/ experimental or untested drugs.

Following patterns like this would mean that the reader begins to doubt the internal thought process of the protagonist, so that when they find out that someone has died in town and the protagonist believes that they are next, the reader won't actually believe it, but think it is another obvious delusion. The kicker comes later when it is proven the protagonist was actually correct, and the assumptions the reader made were wrong.

This could provide more empathy for the main character, as the reader will see the character heading down (what they perceive to be) a self-destructive path of paranoia. This could be through fear to leave the house, pushing away friends because they do not trust them etc. Whilst the reader feels sorry for this person as they cannot help the way they feel, seeing it unfold externally will be tragic as the reader will want to dive into the book and tell them that everything will be alright, they don't need to be so scared. That is until they realize the character was right all along.

Another option could be to make it so that the protagonist can leave. Rather than them being stuck, have something going on in the town that makes them want to stay. This could be from harboring a love interest, wanting to attend an event that is happening soon, or maybe their car is broken down but they could still get the train out of Dodge.

This way, the protagonist will have to wrestle with the internal struggle of having the option to leave. As they are not entirely sure that they are in danger, the reader can experience the indecision of the character between how unsafe they believe they are, and how much they want to stay. They could even be sat at the train station ready to go, but then realizes when the train arrives that it would be crazy to leave early on an unfounded suspicion that they may be the next to be killed.

Then later when they are entirely certain that the killer is after them, the opportunity to leave has passed and they are stuck there, as there are no more trains, or they are snowed in.


You could just make him paranoid, or suspicious, he may not know it yet but he has this gut feeling that he is in danger, his senses are always alert and it seems like danger is lurking in the shadows. He thinks he's just being paranoid but as time passes he comes to realize that his sixth sense was actually right, Tom Clancy style.


Two suggestions:

1) The reader knows that the killer is after Pete the Protagonist, right? So the killer is stalking Pete, in increasingly tense scenarios. Each time the killer gets closer but doesn't kill Pete... yet. This leaves the reader screaming "He's in the net aisle!" because we don't know when the killer is going to come around the corner and finally take a shot at Pete.

2) A third character knows the killer is after Pete, and manages to get off some kind of garbled warning before the killer takes that person out. So Pete is partially warned — warned to avoid a woman with a limp? a very short man? a tall black woman with light hazel eyes? — but doesn't know why he should avoid this person.

  • Lauren - the reader doesn't know this yet. The events are: 1) protagonist gets to an isolated, small town. 2) the killer has a reason for not wanting him there. 3) kills someone as part of the process of getting the protagonist himself killed (it's complicated...), 4) the killer finds out that his plan didn't work, so will go after the protagonist in another way. Right after step 3 is where things get boring, and where I decided to stop and figure out how to make things sound better. Dec 23, 2015 at 11:26
  • @horsehair My suggestion is that the time between steps 3 and 4 should be one scene from the killer's POV. "Oh dang, he's still alive. Now I have to go after him again." And killer resumes plans. Still doesn't work? Dec 23, 2015 at 12:08

First of all, the hero should hate his "small, isolated town," for being a "backwater." (Think Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, or the following from "Spoon River Anthology").

"I LOATHED you, Spoon River. I tried to rise above you,
I was ashamed of you. I despised you
As the place of my nativity."

You show the hero's "want" in the opening scene. Which turns into "desperation" when a killing takes place, putting the hero at risk for what little he had.

But the key is that the hero had a "want" BEFORE the killing. Then the killing only makes it more "urgent."

One other thing: A person isn't "in danger" without a reason. There should be a connection between your protagonist, and the person who was actually killed. They could be related, friends, went to the same school, or even coincidentally look alike. There should be a "rational" reason why the killer who killed the first person would want to kill the second, and the protagonist should have a reasonable fear of this.

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