Character motivation, wants, burning desires… they help to drive characters through your story. Creative writers use them to create powerful dramatic action and the momentum and tension that readers enjoy.
But what about the shadow side of motivation – what characters don’t want? These negative drives are called stakes, and they’re just as powerful. With high stakes and strong motivation working together, your characters will feel much more dynamic and urgent.
Most writers are already clear about wants and motivations.
But they often forget their opposite: stakes. If nothing’s at stake for your characters, you’re only using 50% of the juice that could drive them. So, what are stakes?
Stakes – the shadow side of wants
Being human, we all want things we can’t have – maybe a big house, car, exotic holidays, a child, an unattainable lover, world peace, world domination… the list is endless.
Any of these things could motivate us to take fierce action. That’s the “want” side of character motivation. Something that drives us with enough fire in our bellies.
But positive drives aren’t enough. Characters also need negative drives – what they stand to lose if they don’t get their heart’s desire.
Losing something has its own sense of urgency and fire.
That fire is the opposite to positive wants – it’s what’s at stake. It’s the fear of what happens if we don’t take action.
If I don’t get the job, my family goes hungry.
I have to take in the harvest, or the crop will be spoiled (and my family will go hungry).
If we don’t have the car/house/holiday, we’ll feel like losers.
Note that this isn’t about value judgments – it’s about your character’s world and psychology.
Look at your character’s burning desire, and explore its shadow side. What’s the emotion behind it? Can you link it to a knotty character flaw? For example, if our character doesn’t get the job, his or her family goes hungry, and they fulfil their parent’s / partner’s / town’s opinion that they’re a loser. What are the carrots they’re pursuing, and what are the sticks they’re avoiding? Make use of both to put fire in your characters’ bellies.
Character motivation – what’s at stake?
When you’re developing your characters, ask them their motivation. What drives them? What do they want?
And then ask the opposite: what’s at stake for them.
If they don’t get what they want, what will happen?
The answer needs to be “something dreadful”. They’ll lose their family, friend, job, life or something worse. That’s high stakes.
If the answer is “nothing much”, the stakes are low. The character has little motivation to take action.
You’re not making the most of the dramatic potential of the scene. Eg
If they don’t get the girl or boy, they’ll find someone else, or be perfectly happy alone.
The harvest has been left uncut, but people can just order pizza instead.
We’ve run out of water, but we can just nip down to the nearest shop.
If your characters have easy answers to their problems, then nothing’s really at stake. Make life difficult for them, by using the power of stakes to complement their positive desires.
Brainstorm potential problems for your character. How would they solve them? What skills do they bring to the table? Where do they have flaws or failings? Make the problems harder by exploiting the characters’ weak spots or lack of resources. What problems would really put them through the mill, and force them to lean in, and grow as characters? Now, how can you turn one of these problems into the focus of a dramatic scene?
Raising the stakes to create more compelling character motivation
Once you’ve established the stakes, raise them. Making things as tough as possible for your characters is a key part of dramatic writing and compelling stories!
Imagine a gambler. If he’s playing for low stakes – say, a couple of dollars – then it won’t matter whether he win or loses. He’ll shake off the damage.
There are two ways to raise the stakes for the gambler here.
- Scale – a higher amount, more money – say, ten thousand or a million dollars.
- Context – what the money means – eg it’s all he has, he’s on his knees financially, and so are his family, tribe…
Brainstorm what’s at stake for your characters. Then, brainstorm different options along these two dimensions of scale and context. What do they make you feel for your character? How important are they for the character? Is there a point where the stakes become “too much” and veer towards the melodramatic? Find a good balance between threat and realism.
Wants and stakes combined – the perfect storm of character motivation
I see a lot of fiction in progress where the writers have developed the characters’ wants and burning desires, but there’s something missing – it feels a bit flat. Often, it’s simply because nothing’s really at stake. If they don’t achieve their desire, nothing much will happen. If characters are squeezed by two forces – what they want and what they stand to lose – they’ll be under twice the pressure, and readers will feel twice the tension.
Check in on what’s at stake for your characters. What will happen if they don’t achieve their desires? Tune into the role of stakes as well as wants in your own life, and that of people around you. What’s the most important driving force – wants or stakes? Explore how feel about characters who want to win, as opposed to those who want to avoid losing – are they different kinds of stories? Do you need both elements for a compelling character?
Stakes are the shadow side of dramatic action. Both are needed to create rich, rounded characters with a clear motivation. Get these basic drives right, and your stories will take off with energy and urgency!