Creating Believable High Stakes for Your Characters

Before I jump into the topic of inner and outer conflict, I’m going to share with you today what I feel is the biggest pitfall writers fall into when it comes to setting high stakes. It’s something I’ve seen in countless novels I critique. And it’s a bad thing—because it threatens believability. If you want your readers to believe in your characters, they have to behave believably. Right?

Here’s an example of what I often come across. A character in a fantasy novel goes through some magical portal into another world, where he learns he is the deliverer foretold to save this hidden kingdom. He’s your average guy and knows nothing about this world. Without hesitation, he not only accepts the truth of this prophecy/claim/appointment (fill in the blank), he immediately is willing to risk everything—life, limb, future, his firstborn, you name it—to assume the mantle of authority and responsibility.

But why the heck does he do that? I don’t know, and neither does the writer. Will the reader really believe someone, anyone, would do that? No. Sorry.

Risk Level Has to Match Character’s True Nature

If you order me (or ask, plead, offer your firstborn) to jump headlong into a raging river (let’s say one that leads to a thousand-foot-drop waterfall to my death) to save your ballpoint pen you dropped, do you really think I will do that? Even if I were your BFF, would I? No. Most people wouldn’t.

But maybe a certain kind of person would, and you could create the kind of character who would believably do that. Someone under a spell? Someone who truly believes the fate of the world rests with that pen? Someone with a death wish? The key to believability lies with the character taking or considering the risk and what they believe and are passionate about.

Now, would I jump in that river to save your firstborn?

Hmm . . . that’s a better scenario, right? I still might not. And maybe you wouldn’t either, after taking a hard look at the hopelessness of the effort, and considering you have other children who need a parent to raise them. But it’s your precious child. And more than one person has gone to their death trying to save a friend or family member in treacherous waters. This just might be a believable scenario.

Heroes Are Expected to Take Risks, but . . .

Why would someone risk his life to save another? That is a great question to ask—not just to delve into topics of faith, humanity, sacrifice but to explore in literary structure. That’s what heroes are about, right? They make sacrifices, put others first. We expect and want that from the heroes in our stories. But if the risks they take and the sacrifices they make don’t equal the values they embody and what they are passionate about, they will not be believable.

And so, your characters need to have believable motivation. If you set up a character to be a selfish, insensitive person, she is not going to risk very much for others—unless she gets some personal benefit from it (gets her closer to her goal). Now, let’s discount the character arc for now, since maybe your snooty character is going to change and become all nice and good by the end of the book (but you better have believable scenarios that influence that change as well). The key here is to take care that you set up your characters’ personalities, histories, nature, passions, beliefs, and core needs such that when they take risks for something (while going after their goal), the reader believes they really would do such a thing.

Think of movies in which a parent has to go after kidnappers to get his child back (Taken, Ransom). Is it believable a father would go through what these characters do to get their kids back? Sure. Wouldn’t you do the same? Granted, a lot of dramatic license is taken in these stories, to add to the tension and excitement. We do want to be entertained, right? My husband often hears me grumble at the movie theater or when watching a movie on TV when I see a scene in which a character risks much for something she just wouldn’t care that much about. And when I read similar things in novels, I want to stop reading.

. . . Make Sure the Stakes Fit the Character

Katniss, in The Hunger Games, volunteers to die for her sister—when she takes Prim’s place as a Tribute in the games. But we believe her action. Why? Because we already know she deeply loves and is protective of Prim and couldn’t bear living with herself if she allowed Prim to participate in the deadly games. Even though this choice is made early on in the book, author Collins made sure we knew enough about Katniss and sympathized with her to wholly believe she would do this. And because of the self-sacrificial theme that resonates, our hearts are wrenched when she speaks out to take Prim’s place.

So, as you think of ways to establish high stakes for your characters, be sure the stakes and the risks they will take align with their nature, values, and personality. Don’t ask me to believe your protagonist is willing to risk all to save the world unless what she has to lose by refusing is unthinkable.

Always keep this in mind: the risk a character is willing to make has to be equal to the “penalty” they will pay if they don’t take it, and it’s commensurate to the value the character places on the thing at risk. If something is precious to your character, she will be willing to risk much to get, save, protect, or retrieve it (visible goal). The more value this object or objective has, the more you can push the stakes higher. And the higher, the better. That way, any conflict introduced that threatens will be big.

Big threats, high stakes, great risks—all make for solid novel structure. So build your corner pillar of conflict with high stakes with deliberation and careful attention. It will provide excellent support for your novel. If you’ve missed the prior posts on conflict, read this one, followed by this one. Got any thoughts about high stakes and believability? What is your protagonist risking and why?

Inspection checklist:

Inspection Checklist 1-concept with a kicker

Inspection Checklist 2-protagonist with a goal

Featured Photo Credit: DVIDSHUB via Compfight cc

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  1. Wonderful post. The part about risk being equal to penalty is tricky for me. But by keeping that sentence in mind as I write, I’ll hopefully be able to figure it out.

    1. This is so important to believability in a novel. I see so many novels in which the characters take risks for no good reason. People in real life do not do that. We always make choices based on what we believe and what is important (what matters) to us. And there are varying degrees for all these things we risk. I might risk running through traffic to save a dog because I love animals. You might not be willing to do that. Every action we engage in reveals what we care about or believe in. The more passionate we are about something, the more we are willing to risk. The best novels have a character with a lot of passion risking a lot, which opens up the possibility of great tension and conflict.

  2. Some of the best advice I’ve heard, ever. I’m working on a piece about someone from another plane coming to the Earth plane. He’s a dancer not a prince. He’s not a hero, and he’s not trying to take over the Earth. I’m having rather a lot of fun with this character. So your article is very timely and supports my project.

    1. I personally feel this might be the most important element in novel structure. The characters have to have something at stake that they risk. Everything in a story hinges on this, otherwise there is no story.

  3. Thanks, CS. This excellent post points to the crux of any good story I can think of. The protagonist must make a decision (or a series of them) that carries them through their arc. I’m writing what some call a ‘literary thriller’. My protagonist is making a series of correct decisions that, unknown to her, are inevitably driving her to a high-stakes “dam**d if she does, dam**d if she doesn’t” decision during the climax of the book. She deeply wants both possible outcomes. Either path she takes would in some way be true to her character, so she risks losing part of herself either way.

    I am loving your current series of posts. They hit the target.

    1. I like your character’s dilemma. The best conflict is when a character has two choices, both of them terrible. Inner conflict creates the most tension and interest, to me. Glad these posts are helping you!

  4. Great article! Sometimes I find with weak characters with no clear definition of who they are will always fall trap of being unbelievable. The setup for our central character is so important to understand what is at stake and how much risk our character is willing to take. Established wrong and the reader is in for a bumpy ride. I must keep this in mind. Thank you!

  5. I’m working on a novel where a man who is not really hero material saves a woman, so I have to answer this question: Why would he insert himself into her life to save her and thus get into the predicament they find themselves in? I don’t think we can ever get total insight into why people think the way they do in real life. Maybe it’s about degrees of “craziness”. But somehow we have to make it believable in a story.

    1. I like that premise of the unlikely hero and what happens to him (how it changes him). Think about While Your Were Sleeping with Sandra Bullock, one of my favorite movies! One act of bravery and her whole life is upended.

  6. As I’m nearing the final re-write of my crime/police procedural MS, I find I am asking myself “are the stakes high enough for the reader to care?” Yes, my novel has some murder and a bit of mayhem, but it’s at the end. I find myself wondering if a young cop’s desire to become an undercover narc is big enough, even when we learn what his true motivation is? The obstacles that are thrown in his way leads to insubordination; he doesn’t realize he’s stumbling into police corruption until he’s into the problem deeply. Is it enough?

    1. The important point is to establish right away in the novel what his core need is and what inner conflict he is going through (and outer). The more you can establish high stakes for him at the start (what risks and consequences are at play with his choices), the better. Think about the movie Witness (maybe watch it!) and see how quickly the corruption is revealed. I’d consider getting it (or a whiff of it) as close to the start as possible. If the premise and his goal are all about uncovering or dealing with the corruption, then it needs early setup. If it’s one of many complications in his life or obstacle to another goal, it can come later. Does that make sense? There are lots of books and movies about a person struggling to reach his dream, whether it be a football star, ballerina, stockbroker, etc. The question is tied in with the concept and point of the story. One could be just about a person realizing her dreams and what she goes through to make it. That’s very common, and we love those kinds of stories. I’m not sure your story fits that model. If he gets to be that cop finally at the end, he’s reached his goal. But it sounds as if he may be starting out as this cop with misguided ideas of what he’s gotten himself into as he is thrown into trouble. In that case, you have his goal wrong. Most novels start off with the protagonist with one goal (he wants to be a cop and live a happy, fulfilled life, support his family, etc.) But then SOMETHING happens. Then the goal is shifted, he’s pushed through the first door of no return (based on his passions, beliefs, etc.) and then is off and running with the new goal (uncovering the corruption, hoping to exonerate his friend, himself? That kind of thing). Do you see the difference?

  7. Another great post that hits the spot, Susanne. Food for thoughts that will keep me occupied for some days, I suspect. Thank you!

  8. A great way to look at building characters in impossible situations. I have an undead hero where he told a woman, “I might be dead, but it still hurts.” His attitude showed that if circumstances required it he’d tackle a deadly problem, but not because he is hard to kill. Why hurt himself needlessly?

    Thank you for the enlightening post. I look forward to more from you, while I read your prior posts.

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