Anytime I see that Joss Whedon is attached to a project (be it film or TV or comic book or musical web thingamajiggy) I get an instant writer-boner.
I’ve been a fan of all things Whedon since I first saw the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which she kills a demon with a bazooka.
With. A. Bazooka.
(Season 2, episode 14 in case you want to go watch it right this second).
Having recently seen The Avengers, I’m reminded why Joss Whedon is my hero. Aside from his Whedonisms, he’s got a real talent for making the end of the world accessible. Sure, the Hellmouth might swallow the planet or a demigod might lead an army of crazy aliens against the earth, but it always feels so real.
But the reason I most admire Whedon is that he creates stakes that matter.
The problem with a lot of movies (and with a lot of books) is that the stakes aren’t real. You know that no one is going to die. That everyone is going to make it out in the end. So you never really worry about them, you never fully invest yourself in their journey.
Whedon, however, has made it his mission to kill every character I care about. And by doing so, he lets me (and everyone else) know that no one is safe. Everyone is fair game.
In doing so, I become more invested in those characters. Their journey becomes meaningful because I know that at any moment, it might end.
There’s power in that, and it’s a lesson I’ve taken to heart.
A lot of people were unhappy that, despite my warning in the beginning, I still killed Ollie in The Deathday Letter. It certainly wasn’t easy. By the end of that book, I’d created a character that I loved. I’d transformed him from a clueless, hormonal teen into a slightly less clueless hormonal teen. Near the end, we glimpse the man Ollie could become, and I honestly didn’t want to kill him. But I had to. Not killing him would have robbed his journey of meaning. It would have made the time readers had invested into his story pointless.
In order for Ollie’s story to matter, the stakes had to be real.
And I think the same can be said of every story. I’m not saying that you should kill characters in every book. Instead, I’m saying that every story, every scene, every sentence, must have stakes. Even comedies must have real stakes. We must worry that the guy won’t end up with the girl of his dreams. If we know that it’s a foregone conclusion, then it’s pointless to continue reading.
So, as you write your stories, think about what stakes your story has. If your readers never honestly fear for your characters’ lives, then they’ll never honestly care for them either.