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No Stakes, No Tension

A few recent much-hyped books reminded me of the importance of story stakes. Every story has an overall story problem with stakes:

Good versus Evil.

Win versus lose.

Love versus loss.

The protagonist will gain or lose something by solving or failing to solve this overall story imbalance.

In a Mystery, if the sleuth fails to solve the crime, the criminal will be free to strike again.

In a Thriller, if the protagonist fails to stop the threat, people die or a mega-corporation takes over the world.

In a Romance, if the man loses the girl of his dreams, he will go back to feeling lonely and disconnected.

In a Fantasy, if the protagonist fails, the paranormal evil wins the day making life miserable for everyone involved.

In a Team Victory, if the coach or lead athlete fails, they suffer a loss of esteem and self-esteem.

The stakes are what make us care whether the protagonist succeeds or not and there must be repercussions if they fail.

If a main character devalues his own life, he won’t make a compelling protagonist. I hate depressive “my life is horrible why bother to live” characters.

If she does not care if she lives, why should I? If she does not think she is worth loving, why should I love her? There are people walking around in life that feel that way. They need individualized professional therapy. They will not be miraculously cured by the end of 300 pages by a love interest.

Some protagonists are driven by revenge, rage, or injustice, but it’s stronger if they believe that life is worth fighting for. That doesn’t mean he can’t be noble enough to lay down his life for his fellow man. However, the protagonist has to believe his life was worth something in the first place to give the sacrifice value.

In addition, the stakes have to be highest for the protagonist. Friends and Foes and the Antagonist should have stakes in the game, too. If you assign higher stakes to secondary characters, the story structure is unsound. The reader may find herself rooting for the protagonist to walk away from the story problem rather than solve it.

It’s like a dysfunctional friendship. Dick’s life is fine (job, relationships, etc.) and his friend, Ted, gets into a self-destructive relationship with a manipulative con artist. The situation will create ripples for Dick, but there are no stakes for Dick. It’s his friend’s life. If Ted allows himself to be used, there isn’t much Dick can do about it. Other than say, “Dude, what are you doing with this psycho chick? She is messed up. Move on.”

Unless Ted is the catalyst that brings psycho chick into Dick's world (i.e. inciting event) and psycho chick turns her attentions to Dick, Dick has no real stakes in the game other than mild inconvenience or concern for his friend. Ted is the one whose life is about to go sideways. Ted is the one with the stakes.

If a stranger approaches Jane and says, “Hey, have I got a deal for you. Unless you help me, I’m going to die.” Why should Jane care? She may be a decent person who hates to see anyone die. However, she is unlikely to risk her own life for a total stranger, worse an obnoxious stranger, unless the stranger’s death results in nuclear holocaust or the end of the world as we know it. If that is true, Jane needs this information up front. Otherwise, unless her boundaries are really, really fuzzy, she will walk away. You don't want a protagonist's boundaries to be that fuzzy!

If a stranger approaches Jane with this kind of request, she has to be the only one on the planet with the special knowledge or capability to save the world. Otherwise, the conflict isn’t personal for Jane. It’s personal for the stranger and the stranger should be the protagonist. If Jane thinks, “My life sucks and I wasn’t doing anything anyway,” that is poor motivation for solving someone else’s story problem. It’s hard to root for a protagonist so apathetic about her own life.

There are action hero protagonists who are given a “death” wish mentality. They have nothing left to lose: their job is gone and their wife/child is dead, etc. The plot strips them of everything they had to live for and all that is left is the desire for revenge. Readers and viewers love revenge. It is a universal emotion everyone in every culture can tap into. It’s the basis for Mysteries, Thrillers, Con and Heist, even Literary stories. It’s a great excuse for huge theatrical chase scenes, explosions, and fight scenes in movies. 
In literature, revenge fueled The Count of Monte Cristo and The Man in the Iron Mask. 

For me, as a reader, it’s stronger if the protagonist still has something or someone left to live for or hopes to regain.

Even so, that is not the same as having the protagonist solve a complete stranger’s problem for them simply because she has nothing better to do and hates her own life enough she is willing to die for a stranger to rid herself of it.

Your protagonist can be flawed. Her thinking can be faulty. He can be mildly depressed or grieving, but protagonists should not be pathetic.

If the reader is rooting for your protagonist to die, you have chosen the wrong horse for your race.

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