In Donald Maass's book Writing the Breakout Novel, he talks about stakes. He goes over how a breakout novel needs two kinds: personal stakes - what the hero could lose - and public stakes - what the world of the novel could lose. Together, they make a powerful combination. I've found this to be true.

However, not all novels lend themselves well to public stakes. A prime example is character-driven fiction. Take for example Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. The novel is about the main character's inner journey. There's nothing bad that's going to happen to the surrounding countryside if the goal of the novel doesn't work out.

This brings me to my question. Where are the public stakes in character-driven novels?

The lack of public stakes in such novels as Pride and Prejudice leads me to wonder if the main character essentially is the world of the novel, meaning you only need personal stakes. Once the main character becomes invested in the world, the stakes should too. I have nothing to back this up though.

  • An excellent question, and I like your idea of "the character is the world." Commented Oct 8, 2015 at 16:30

2 Answers 2


I'm not entirely sure your example demonstrates the lack of public stakes. The world of the novel is the immediate world the character inhabits, a social world that encompasses all the characters whose lives are affected by what happens in the novel. In your Jane Austin example, this would then suggest that the public stakes would be the social standing of, not just her (as in Elizabeth's) family, but also the families of those around her that are affected by decisions made, which in turn has implications for that society.

There are public stakes if Elizabeth does or does not marry Darcy. It would affect her family's standing, and it certainly has implications for Darcy and his family: Darcy initially showed he thought Elizabeth and her family were inferior, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh was dead set against the marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth because she wanted Darcy to marry a cousin instead.

At a more subtle level, choosing to marry someone based on love rather than accepting an arranged marriage and going against what could be seen as normal for the upper classes has wider implications for this sort of society. Perhaps others could be inspired by this and marry for the same reasons, thus changing what was a normal practice.

Most novels are character driven (perhaps a controversial statement, I don't know), it's just that sometimes the "public stakes" are more obvious and literal (for example, in Armageddon, if they don't succeed, the world is going to die), but in others, "public stakes" refers to very specific social and cultural consequences that could just encompass a few groups of people (and perhaps have very subtle effects on society as a whole).


You can create public stakes by having your main character(s) be the focus of topics that have public stakes in the outside world.

For instance, I've written the better part of a novel in which the main characters fight in the American Revolution, while conducting their private courtship during the war. Since the hero is marching with a "rescuing" force, he might not see the heroine again if General Greene's army is destroyed, and never makes it back to the heroine's home in South Carolina. So the progress of the war impacts the progress of the romance.

Another work, a screenplay, was about how hard it is for a woman to make it to the top of her profession, until she finds two men to take her under their wing, one of whom dates her, and the other of whom is the first man's BFF.

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