Expansion Pack: The Stakes Character

Hi gang, Craig here again with another Expansion Pack. These are designed to enhance the series I wrote about The Hero’s Journey, also known as the Writing Monomyth.

It’s worth repeating that none of the Expansion Pack material is required for your stories. These are just as advertised. If you want to get a bit deeper into the optional stuff, you might find them helpful.

I think everyone understands the concept of stakes, but in fiction there has to be a risk of some kind. What might be lost? What might be gained? That kind of thing.

You can even use a recipe card to a degree: If hero doesn’t accomplish goal, blank will happen. There is a lot of room to play here, particularly in the goal area. Today we want to focus on the ________ will happen part.

You’ve read books, or seen films, where the stakes are obvious. The giant asteroid will hit Earth and kill everyone, nuclear war, ad infinitum. There are also stories where the goal might be to escape from enemy lines, etc. Stakes are usually pretty obvious.

What if you were to take the stakes and personify them? I’m talking about creating a character that represents the price of failure. To do this, you have to give this character some page time. It could be the soldier’s child back home, the love interest, or even an animal.

Tip: Know your audience before attempting this. 2019 probably isn’t the time to rely upon Beaver Cleaver or Opie Taylor. The stakes character can have flaws too, but it’s your job to make the reader feel for them.

It’s time for me to delve into film for an example. The 1996 movie Twister used Helen Hunt’s elderly aunt perfectly. She lived alone in tornado alley, but we got to meet her and she was sweet. We cared for her. She personified what was at risk. Much better than just coldly knowing that someone is going to get hurt. Now it’s Aunt Meg.

The stakes character knows no race, sex, or age limits. Aunt Meg was an elderly character. In a somewhat creative move, the entire cast of Goonies were their own stakes characters. Maybe not from the developers behind the whole problem, but from the Fratellis who were pursuing the kids.

One of my favorite films actually did it wrong. In Dante’s Peak, the belligerent old mother-in-law refused to leave her beloved mountain. The main characters had to go into harm’s way to save her. The problem is that she wasn’t lovable, and was kind of unworthy. (Still loved the movie.)

In a story, a captive of some kind is an obvious stakes character, but you can go beyond this. When I wrote The Playground, all of our children were placed at risk by a nefarious kind of social media placed into their toys. I chose one girl and demonstrated her downward spiral to illustrate what was happening on the broader scale. Focusing on a single child helps readers get the full gist.

Another tip: Don’t be afraid to play on reader sympathy here. Put the stakes character in a wheelchair. Use the ticking clock of an insulin injection that must be administered within a certain time. Beautiful characters are more likely to work here than hideous ones. Super-heroic, muscle bound characters might save themselves, so avoid them as stakes characters.

Quiz time: The volcano is erupting. Lava is flowing down the street. Add in some homes bursting into flames, gas lines, deadly fumes, the works. Standing in the middle of the street directly in the path of the lava flow is/are:

A.) The Avengers.

B.) Chuck Norris.

C.) Fiona the baby hippo.

D.) Dolores Umbridge.

Which one would make the best stakes character? Which one might elicit sympathy from your readers?

I think you’ve got this.

Using a stakes character has an infinite amount of possibility. This is because the stakes are so varied in our stories. Different genres have different expectations. Could a stakes character help bring some of your story into focus?

44 thoughts on “Expansion Pack: The Stakes Character

  1. Pingback: Friday Finds #writetip #fiction – Staci Troilo

  2. I liked Twister and Dante’s Peak. Funny, though (and probably proves your point about the stakes character being any demographic), I didn’t remember Aunt Meg until you mentioned her in this post. But I frequently remember the grumpy mother-in-law from Dante’s Peak because she finally got it in the row boat and sacrificed herself to get the rest of them to safety. It was almost too little and definitely too late, but that one act not only elevated her character (for me) but made her incredibly memorable. (Although I’m still angry with her early-movie decision to ride it out.)

    Great post, Craig. And Fiona… all the feels. 🥰

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Really enjoyed this, as usual. I used stakes characters in the last book I wrote. They add a lot of tension. You used Bonnie in Voyage of the Lanternfish and gave her a rough time. I’m interested in what you’re going to do with her now that you’ve saved her:) Should be fun.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. i think my best use of a stakes character was in Myth and Magic when I had the main character’s young son kidnapped.

    This was another great expansion post. That vid of Fiona is adorable. I had no idea baby hippos could be so cute, hug-gable and friendly. When she opens her mouth wide, it makes me think of the powerful adult she’ll grow into.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched Dante’s Peak. It’s one of my favorite movies, too. I was sooo ticked at the grandmother, but at least she redeemed herself toward the end.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Reblogged this on Archer's Aim and commented:

    Steaks are not the only thing that can sizzle in a book. Try putting some high stakes on a good character and you’ve got some sizzle. Have a look at C. S. Boyack’s helpful take on this in his expansion pack post on Story Empire.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. The baby hippo, but Dolores Umbridge will be there to show what could happen if the heroes fail. I think you can have multiple stakes characters to show a range too. I’m thinking of ‘Taken’ where he had his daughter and her friend to save. The friend didn’t survive, but the daughter did. The former helped to increase the sense of stakes. Kind of like a sacrificial character.

    With Dante’s Peak, would the mother-in-law be a redemption character considering how she died?

    Liked by 3 people

    • I agree with both points. Fiction is so malleable there are any number of ways to do things. It’s nice to talk about the concepts, then figure out how it might work in your story. In Silence of the Lambs, the girl in the well made a good stakes character.

      Liked by 2 people

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