My favorite authors in fantasy and science fiction are the ones who can convince me the characters are in true peril. I need to feel that the characters have a very real shot of dying--not every moment of course, but when the action heats up. That always makes the book feel so much more real and closer to me. Readers need that sense of true danger and possibility of the ultimate failure to make us care.
Somehow, the best authors can overcome the thinking in a reader's head that a main character or primary characters won't die. (Especially a true worry if there are sequels coming.) With a few exceptions, a main character is too important to the plot and to the author to be killed off willy-nilly. We simply need them too much. But to really connect readers need to believe that there is a chance it could be the end.
I tried to accomplish that in Grudging and hope I succeeded.
So how do the good authors manage to make readers suspend that safe main character mentality and fear for the character. Writers have a couple of tricks.
Show the Danger- A well-crafted book will find a redshirt. The author will show the danger is real by killing off some secondary characters, like they do in StarTrek. Send in the unknown actor in the red shirt to die and prove the situation is serious. There instantly becomes a sense of real threat, especially if the secondary character is well-liked and innocent. If it's cleverly managed, a reader won't even notice the trick.
Injuries Matter- Jim Butcher does this so well in his Dresden Series. The main character suffers a variety of real and debilitating injures. He/She bleeds, gets shot, gets beat up. Suffers physically. Another good example is the early Die Hard movies. Poor John McClane is a member of the walking wounded by the end of the movie.
This can be hard to do for an author as we love our characters so much. Authors might want a character to suffer emotionally, but physical suffering seems to be harder to do. Unfortunately, you have to let them bleed to make it real.
Ixnay on the Healay- Don't use magic to fix a character. When a character can magically heal and does so over and over, all sense of true danger goes out the window. Sure, you can really take your characters to the brink, but one problem--no one will care anymore. The fear is gone. So if you're going to using magic healing in your book, make sure there are limits to it and use it sparingly.
No bluffing- Don't have a villain that bluffs and never follows through. Let your antagonist do actual "bad" things and have real motivation for the acts he/she commits. The more hated and fearful they are, the more believable the peril will be.
Do the Deed- Some authors actually do the deed. They kill off the main character. This necessitates another character stepping up to take their place and runs the risk of reader backlash. Some readers will lose all interest in the story and stop reading. This is what happened to me and Game of Thrones. I backed away. But it can work beautifully if there are other loved characters, such as in Brandon Sanderson's SPOILER SPOILER LOOK AWAY IF YOU PLAN TO READ HIS BOOKS----
Mistborn series. How can you doubt anyone could perish when your favorite character and star of the show just bit the dust? It's the ultimate in peril.
So there are a couple of ways to make the danger real.
Let me know your favorite book with a real sense of peril. And if you know of other methods, please share them!