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What are the Stakes?

Have you ever heard the dreaded phrase ‘I didn’t connect with your main character?’ No? Just me? In this short series of posts I’m going to rip into that phrase and look at some reasons *why* people don’t connect to your main character.

One of the biggest reasons is that you might lack goals, obstacles, and stakes for your character. So naturally I’m going to write about the third one first. Because that’s what happens when you’re a pantser. You just roll with it.

In it’s simplest terms, stakes are the thing that makes something matter. And it has to matter. Whatever your main character is doing, it has to be important to her, because if it’s not important to her, why would it possibly seem important to us as readers? You can add characterization, setting, introducing characters, or whatever you want, but at the end of the day the scene has to matter.

Here’s a simple example. My main character — let’s call him Mike — is a low level con man who makes bad decisions. In this scene, he’s playing a game of Three Card Monte. If he chooses the red queen, he wins. If he chooses one of the black jacks, he loses. The game is rigged against him, but he plays anyway. So I’m showing you that he makes bad decisions. And that’s the scene, without stakes. The dealer flips up his card, and…we don’t care. Boring. We don’t care if Mike wins or loses, because there’s nothing invested in it.

Take the same scene and add stakes. Mike is playing for his rent money. He only has half the rent, and if he wins he doesn’t get put out on the street. If he loses, he’s down to nothing and he has to go work at a crooked bocce game for Vito the Knife. The dealer flips up his card…hey, now I care a little bit. Mike is in danger of having to turn to a life of rigged lawn bowling. Mike didn’t do anything different in the scene, but by changing the stakes, Mike becomes more interesting.

tiger

Now take your stakes and raise them. Make them really matter. Now Mike is at the same game of Three Card Monte, and if he picks the red queen, he wins his rent money. If he picks a black jack, it releases a giant, ravenous tiger into the room. The dealer turns up the card…and holy crap, now Mike is interesting. And maybe he’s going to get eaten by a tiger, which would be kind of cool. Maybe some readers want to see the tiger. Maybe some want to see Mike escape, because hey, I’ve heard Mike is awesome. And it doesn’t matter what the readers root for, as long as they’re rooting for something. Because if they’re rooting, they care.

And that’s what you need. If the reader cares what happens, they’re connected. In all three versions of the scene our main character did exactly the same thing. He played a game of Three Card Monte. By changing the stakes and making the outcome of the game interesting, we change the impact of the scene. We give the reader a reason to keep reading and to invest in Mike.

Obviously stakes are just one way to get people invested in your characters. Tune in at some random time in the future when I’ll talk about some other ways. Or I won’t. Pantser. Sorry.

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I am a Soldier and a Science Fiction writer. Usually I write about Soldiers. Go figure. I'm represented by Lisa Rodgers of JABberwocky Literary Agency. If you love my blog and want to turn it into a blockbuster movie featuring Chris Hemsworth as me, you should definitely contact her.

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