How to Keep the Stakes High in Character-Driven Novels

Okay, so I write romance. There’s not generally a lot of good vs. evil in a romance. No wicked overlord trying to unseat a king. Very few daggers and swords and magical spells threatening to bring ruin to all in the land.

No, romance is a character-driven beast. And what a beast it is.

When I first started writing romance, it was really hard for me. You could find me moaning in the corner with an empty package of Girl Scout Cookies, mumbling, “But what’s supposed to happen?”

Things really took a turn for me when I attended a class somewhere (I can’t even remember where or when! I take a lot of classes) and someone said, “The romance is the main plot.”

It was like someone had ignited the sun over my head.

The romance IS the plot. Huh. Who knew?

Anyway, once I had that well in-mind, the next question came as to how to keep the stakes high in such a novel. If the romance is the plot, there must be highs and lows. There must be SOMETHING keeping people turning the pages.

Now, before you go there, remember that I write Christian western romances. There’s none of that going on.

So what does keep readers flipping pages when they read character-driven novels like a romance?

1. Thoughtful pacing. 

Things are happening, and you as the author need to make sure they happen at exactly the right time. I always put a kiss at the midpoint. Always. At exactly 50% of the book. Too soon, and I’ve rushed. Too late, and readers are frustrated.

I always think, “Ebb and flow. Come and go. Two steps forward, one back.” That’s my mantra when I’m writing a character-based novel. If you can keep that forward progression going, but constantly put obstacles in the way, you’ve got it.

What obstacles? you might ask. Internal obstacles. Emotional turmoil. Questioning beliefs. Taking emotional risks. In the character-driven novel, the character themselves is both hero and villain.

2. Likeable characters a reader can cheer for. 

These are essential in any novel, but especially important for novels that are so character-focused. Ask yourself, “Why would someone want to spend the next 60,000 words with this person?”

Do they have relatable flaws? Realistic strengths? Compelling reasons to STAY AS THEY ARE? Because if they’re ready and rearin’ for change, the emotional pay-off for readers isn’t as high. It’s better to take a likeable character with Six Things That Need Fixing, and really have them buck against fixing those things.

3. Realistic and cruel obstacles. 

I know that sounds terrible! But if your story features a heroine who’s previous husband died in a fire, the best thing to do is give her a hero who fights fires for a living. She really needs to face her demons to go through the emotional transformation you want her to.

Likewise, your hero needs real and relatable problems too. There’s nothing that drives me more batty than the “perfect man.” True, that’s what most readers want — in the end. Not on page one. So the hero in a romance also needs his insecurities and shortcomings, and he should have to face his personal demons as he falls in love too.

This is where you can play with the plot a little too. These obstacles — what’s keeping the main character from getting what they want? — can be internal and external. It’s almost always the internal obstacles that must be overcome in the end, but external obstacles can force characters to examine themselves internally. So that’s where I throw in bad weather, or a fall from a horse, or a sick kid.

Or hey, that fire that just might be the end of a relationship. 🙂

How do you keep the tension high in a character-driven novel? 


Liz Isaacson writes inspirational romance, usually set in Texas, or Wyoming, or anywhere else horses and cowboys exist. Her Western inspirational romances, SECOND CHANCE RANCHTHIRD TIME’S THE CHARM, and FOURTH AND LONG are Amazon #1 bestsellers and are available now.

She lives in Utah, where she teaches elementary school, taxis her daughter to dance several times a week, and serves on her community’s library board. Liz is represented by Marisa Corvisiero of the Corvisiero Agency. Find her on Facebooktwitter, and her blog.

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