Building Character by Raising the Stakes

photo by Colin Cubitt


Happiness may be great in real life. But it’s fatal in story.

Few things numb readers more than a character surrounded by birdsong and puppies, who isn’t risking something deeply important.

There’s no payoff when everything works out all hunky dory. Or when the outcome is as simple as a character getting what he wants. Or not.

Readers are hungry for danger.

We’re just hardwired that way.

We all have within us remnants of that fight-or-flight response inherited from our primitive ancestors. As we’ve evolved, opportunities to test our mettle have largely diminished. Rarely do we encounter saber-toothed tigers or barbaric enemy tribes.

And while we don’t necessarily need your characters to wage life or death battles, we still crave that primal adrenaline rush. We want to live dangerously with your characters, through them.

But it’s not physical danger we crave so much. It’s emotional danger.

To get your characters into trouble, and for their own good, they must be confronted with choices. Hard choices. The kind that shake their sense of who they are, or thought they were.

The Trouble With Conflict

We’re often told that characters must want something. And want it badly.

To create conflict, there must be obstacles thrown into your character’s path. By the story’s end, your character either gets what he wants, or doesn’t.

At first glance, this may seem like an easy formula for plot structure.

The trouble is, human desire and the messiness it dredges up are far more complex. That’s because we tend to have simultaneous desires rubbing up against each other. The conflict may arise from external circumstances, but they’re fought largely within, between our own emotional dualities.

And, as it often turns out, when we get what we want, there’s something equally important we’re forced to let go of. It might be our feelings about a loved one. A prejudice. What we believe is true about the world.  Or true about ourselves.

Conflict is an often misunderstood and overblown concept.

I think a better question to ask of your character is this:

What’s at stake? What hangs in the balance?

In Andre Dubus’s classic, A Father’s Story, Luke Ripley is faced with a choice: report a hit and run accident in which a young man dies, or hide the evidence to protect his only daughter.

If he reports the accident, he must also turn his daughter in to the police. If he covers up the evidence, he robs the victim’s parents of emotional closure and, at the very least, knowledge of what happened to their son. The latter goes against the very core of what Luke knows is morally and legally right.

The stakes would be high for any father in this situation.

But Dubus raises the stakes even higher by rendering a father who is also devoutly religious. Luke’s morning ritual centers around talking to God. He prays daily. Attends Mass each Sunday. His best friend is a priest.

So when the moment of decision comes, he’s wedged between two powerful but conflicting urges.

What hangs in the balance, what he is forced to question, is his relationship with God, the fulcrum of his very identity.

When writing your story, instead of asking, What is the conflict? try asking, What’s at stake? What does my character stand to gain? What does he stand to lose?

Whatever the outcome, something will be lost, while something entirely unexpected might be gained.

That’s where the danger lies. And that is what your readers are hungry for.

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