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Note: This question deals exclusively with personal stakes (what the character could lose). It does not deal with public stakes (what the world of the novel could lose).


In my mind, there are two levels of stakes (not to be confused with the kinds of stakes): basic and deep.

Example: In the first season of 24, you have basic personal stakes. Jack needs to stop the terrorists to rescue his daughter. In LotR, you have deep personal stakes. Frodo needs to destroy the Ring, otherwise it will consume and destroy him. The difference is that if Frodo fails, he will, in some form, be incomplete and be unable to continue (again, in some form). In 24, we can assume that if Jack fails to rescue his daughter, he will be seriously messed up, but we can also assume that he will eventually continue. There's nothing saying or even suggesting that he won't.

While I recognize that basic stakes can work in certain scenarios, they always only seem to be enough. Call me a perfectionist, but I don't want enough. I want the maximum.

Background: I am an outliner, meaning I develop and plan every aspect of my writing before actually writing it. I operate almost entirely off of formulas and step-by-step processes. I cannot sit down and 'simply write'. That approach does not work for me.

Problem: I am currently trying to create a process by which I can generate deep personal stakes in my characters. Deep personal stakes boil down to a need without which a character is incomplete in some form, and cannot continue in some form (due to being incomplete).

I have tried looking up examples of stakes, but surprisingly, I couldn't find any. Just lots of information on how to make basic stakes and raise them. No one seems to even know about deep personal stakes. For this reason, LotR is the best example of deep personal stakes which comes to mind.

Question: Can you show me a process by which I can create deep personal stakes for my characters?

I will be glad to provide more details if necessary.

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There is a scene in Naomi Novik's Spinning Silver which, I believe, holds the answer to your question:

I didn't mean to say no to him that day. I had never said no to him before, because I knew if we did he would hurt us, and he hurt us anyway already, and so I knew he would hurt us even worse if we said no. I would not have even thought of saying no to him no matter what he did, because he could always do something worse. And when Wanda said no to him, I said no too, but I didn't really decide to say no, I just said it. But now, I thought, I had said it because there wasn't anything worse he could do to me than hit Wanda with that poker over and over and make her dead while I was there just watching. If he was going to do that then I could be dead too, and that would not be as bad as just standing there. (Naomi Novik, Spinning Silver, chapter 19)

You have to find what it is that your character would not, could not, give up - that whatever you did to them, giving this up would be worse. That is your character's core. The core of their identity, as much as anything else. That is the thing that is most fundamental to them. That is as deep as stakes could go for them.

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    This is something I feel I understand. I reverse it, and create the thing which cannot be lost first, and then the character (based on that stake), but the principle is the same. However, I still have a problem: how do I create the need? The character needs the stake (aka, can't give it up), but I'm lacking a process by which I can generate such core needs. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Aug 31 at 21:09
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If you like process and planning, The Story Grid is really good.

You start out with an overview of your story on a foolscap sheet and, from there, make a detailed outline scene by scene analysing the stakes for each scene, giving it a rating in terms of its severity, and whether it shifts from positive to negative, negative to positive and so on. It enables you to see, at a glance, whether your stakes are getting progressively worse for your protagonist as the story evolves. Which they should. And is probably why you’re only finding examples of basic stakes that are then raised as the story progresses.

If you think about The Lord of the Rings in terms of Frodo’s stakes, remember, it doesn’t start out as deep and personal as you discuss. In the beginning, when Frodo is given the ring, all he has to do is keep it safe, and keep it secret. The ring has no hold over him at the beginning. Those stakes increase in intensity when Gandalf tells Frodo that he must leave the Shire and get to The Prancing Pony where Gandalf will meet him. But still, the stakes are not that high and the ring has very little hold. But again, those stakes worsen when Gandalf doesn’t make it to The Prancing Pony and the Black Riders attack the inn. With the attack on Wethertop, the ring finally starts to take hold, and Frodo nearly dies. But, still, his only goal, at that point, is to get the ring to Rivendell. If you analyse the story, you will notice the stakes for Frodo gradually increase in severity and get more and more personal, until his untenable moment when he’s abandoned the fellowship (and even Sam) and walks into the Cracks of Doom alone, only to find the ring has complete power over him and he cannot destroy it, cannot do what he set out to do.

BUT, Tolkien didn't start there. He started with:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

And, from that one line, wrote The Hobbit and then The Silmarillion. Then he spent twelve years plotting TLOTR. He didn't start with Frodo standing alone at The Cracks of Doom unable to destroy the ring. He started with a map of his world and gave the story 12 years to "compost" (** see below **), saying:

"I have long ceased to invent…I wait till I seem to know what really happened. Or till it writes itself.”

So, I would suggest that you don’t try to come up with such deep and personal stakes at the outset. Start small. Add a small complication for your protagonist. Then analyse how you can make it a little bit worse, then even worse, gradually increasing the intensity until the circumstances become untenable for your protagonist, deep and personal, life and death, death or damnation. And this will depend very much on your genre and your individual protagonist (what matters to them).

The general consensus is that you should keep listing ideas, then ask yourself how you can make things a little bit worse. The first ten or fifteen ideas you have will probably have been done already, may even be cliché (because everything you have seen and read will crowd the forefront of your mind), but as you keep mining your imagination for something better, something more intense, you will eventually list down an idea that’s original and exciting. But this process takes time. ** In Writing Down The Bones, Natalie Goldberg calls this process ‘composting’. You keep throwing in new ideas, and give them time to compost in your mind, until you arrive at beautiful rich soil. **

Read The Story Grid, listen to the podcast, and look at the website. It’s really good if you’re an obsessive planner. It’s not for everyone, but I think it might be up your street.

Good luck!

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