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?