Whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction, giving your characters accountability adds depth and will forge a connection between your character and the reader. Accountability helps give your character the “it” factor and shows your protagonist has depth and cares for something other than himself. (For more ways to make your reader fall in love with your protagonist, read The Compelling Protagonist: Three No-Fail Writing Strategies and The Compelling Protagonist Part 2.)
But the best aspect of making your character accountable is that it will give your character goals, cause conflict, and drive your story.
Katniss in The Hunger Games makes herself accountable to her family. Without her hunting, her mother and sister would starve. Even though Katniss loves her family, she resents being the sole support. She blames her mother for being weak, building dilemma conflict within Katniss’ character (which is a great way to build conflict into your story). She loves her family (Prim) yet resents her family (her mother) too. And she is accountable for both.
Remember, there are two sides to everything, even accountability, which creates conflict within your character. Never pass up a chance to use this technique.
In The Lord of the Rings the lead character, Frodo, loves the Shire more than anything. Although there are battles and subplots galore, Frodo’s quest is the core of the story. It becomes clear he is the only one who can destroy the Ring of Power in Mordor, where it was forged. Throughout the story Frodo is accountable to those who helped him (and those who died as they helped). But mostly, Frodo is accountable to the residents of the Shire, and we are constantly reminded of this with the characters of his friends: Merry, Pippin, and of course, Sam. Without Frodo and his quest, the Shire will be destroyed and the hobbits will face slaughter.
Frodo’s accountability drives the core story and the scope is huge: the end of the world as he knows it. What is at stake? Everything!
For a non-fiction example, in Mao’s Last Dancer, protagonist Li Cunxin is chosen, as a small boy, to attend Madame Mao’s Beijing Dance Academy. He is horribly homesick and as a result, his first year is dismal and his continuation at the academy is at risk. He doesn’t even like dance! But more than a career is on the line. His family is living in bitter poverty in rural China and this is his way out to help them financially in the future. Even bigger—his family will be disgraced and lose their honor if he fails. Through accountability his goal and its importance emerges, but more—we see him care more for his family than he does himself (something he learned from his family) and as readers, we are behind him one-hundred percent.
So how do you dig deep and uncover the accountability for your characters? Here are some creative writing prompts to get you started. Keep working at this aspect of your characters—before you write, during, and in revisions. You’ll get a triple bonus: your characters will be deeper and more compelling, accountability will create conflict, and character/story goals will strengthen.
What matters most to this character?
Why is this important to him?
What does it signify to him?
How can it be threatened? What if he loses it?
Is he accountable for it? How?
Who does he love most in the whole world?
Is he accountable for this person? Why? How?
How can this person be threatened? What if your protagonist loses this person?
Was he accountable for this person in the past? Did he fail? Did he succeed?
Does he want to be accountable for this person? Why? Why not?
What does this character want most in the world?
Why is this important to him?
What does gaining this signify to him?
How can his success be threatened?
What if he doesn’t reach his goal?