Not only do stakes connect a particular protagonist to a particular plot in fiction, they forge a connection with the reader as well. Stakes invest the action with tension. The key to generating stakes is to make your protagonists’ wants and needs BIG. Wants that stir us; needs that change lives.
In Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder talks about the importance of harnessing primal forces in the crafting of personality. By primal forces, he means basic drives: survival, hunger, sex, fear of death, protection of loved ones. I’d add others, such as the urge to find love, concern for others, self-realization (a sense of purpose or self worth), and the need to grow up.
Stakes can shift over the course of a novel. Characters can be deluded. Needs can go unrecognized. Less important wants can give way to more compelling needs. Look at George Bailey in the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. He thinks he wants to get away and have his own life, but ends up trapped, taking care of others. What he really needs is to reclaim his own value and let others take care of him.
A move in the direction of more significant stakes is a move in the direction of greater tension.
A further refinement is that stakes for the protagonist and the reader aren’t exactly the same. This difference is subtle, but essential to the goal of generating tension in the reader. (See Tension: The Secret to Storytelling.) Readers pick up on stakes in at least three different ways:
1. Identification: I want what you want.
Identification tends to involve wants we all share, such as the basic drives listed above. For example, in Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, we desperately want the characters to find love and beauty despite the ugliness and hate of their capture. We’d want that for ourselves. We identify with their feelings.
2. Empathy: I want you to have what you want.
Empathy invites readers to care about wants outside their own experience. It usually centers on more sympathetic characters, the strength of whose wanting can stir a sense of stakes in us all. I like the funny example of the Disney movie Ratatouille for this. I couldn’t understand how I was going to care about a rat learning to cook, but once I saw the movie, I did. In serious novels, this approach can take readers to places they might otherwise never understand. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides comes to mind. We empathize with the character. (See The Love of a Writer.)
3. Direct stakes: I want this for myself.
Some plot situations throw out stakes directly to readers, such as saving a child in danger. Even if the character doesn’t fully want it, we do! The solving of a mystery can present its own stakes. That’s probably why mysteries can get away with such grouchy detectives. Another example of direct stakes is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn with its deliberately unsympathetic and unreliable main characters. The mystery there is on the level of character. We care about the solution.
Stakes for the reader are an interaction of character and plot, sometimes more of one or the other. If the stakes are empathy-based, then it’s relatively more important that we care about the protagonist and want him or her to succeed. If the wants or needs are so universal that we can’t help but share them, then our sympathy can be weaker. A gauge to determine whether the stakes are working is the tension produced. How tense the stakes make us feel gives us a way to assess their strength.
In all these situations, the physical sensation of tension can act as the writer’s divining rod. Is your character impelled by a big enough want or need? Consider tension. Is your character’s resistance or fear strong enough to put that goal in doubt? Consider tension. Does your character need to be more sympathetic or, conversely, more unreliable? Consider tension. Are the stakes investing the action with real meaning? Consider tension.