Way With Worlds: The Stakes

chessboard chess

(Way With Worlds Runs at Seventh Sanctum, Muse Hack, and Ongoing Worlds)

Having discussed character goals, abilities, plans, actions, and results, let’s talk about the stakes characters fight for.

Oh, and how we screw it up.  And maybe how they screw it up, but that’s more “story” than “author messed it up.”

What Are We Fighting For?

Characters set out with certain goals and values and are trying to achieve something – even if that’s preventing something. They are, in short, fighting for something.  It may not seem like a conflict, but if it’s not something easy to do, it’s a conflict of some kind.

We, as readers, are drawn into the goals because the world is believable, the characters well written, the gameplay compelling, etc. When the stakes are well-realized, when they are understandable, they both draw us into the world and enhance the experience.  When stakes become our stakes, the goals our goals, the risk our risk, we’re truly involved – and the world we experience is truly alive.

If you’ve ever dodged in real life while playing an FPS or gotten angry at a fictional character, you know how compelling a world and its realization in fiction or media can be. The stakes are real.

Probably this is why we love viscerally. Even the worst film or story can make us sympathize with someone (no matter how poorly written) in a situation we relate to. We get humiliation or pain. Probably his is one reason authors and worldbuilders resort to blood, violence, sex, and fear too often – they’re visceral and have that chance to draw you in.

(Well visceral until you get tired of them).

So as you may guess, the Stakes are part of your world.  They’re what gives us a tale, what makes characters believable, and what gives us a gut-punch realization of “what’s going on.”

Well, We Are Fighting For It, Right?

The things that occur in your world, the challenges and risks, are born of your setting – just like the characters who deal with them. They are part of the weather or he culture or the divine or the infernal that you’ve created. What’s going on, what’s at risk, is part of your setting.

Well, it is if you do it right.

Action-reaction, results, risks, are all part of good worldbuilding.  You need to know what happens, what goes wrong, what results occur when things are done or aren’t done.  When you know how things “work” then in turn you can understand the stakes of what’s going on, how the characters feel, the results they want. – and what draws in your reader or player.  If your world isn’t properly defined, properly connected, it becomes unbelievable, the stakes are meaningless, there’s less visceral appeal, and suspension of disbelief gives up and goes and gets a coffee.

Ever read a story where the goals seemed lame, the risks trite or poorly-created, and the sense of what people are trying to do didn’t hold up? Or you’d seen it all before and felt like someone had brought in a Risky Stakes transplant from another story? The world wasn’t well designed, the stakes had no meaning, the characters had no meaning, and you were just there watching a pile of stuff.

You get the idea.

How you build your world sets the stakes for characters. Now that may seem obvious, but I find we get trapped in designing them or not even realizing them.  We stop building the world and start just throwing stuff into it.

Overdone Stakes

(Yes, lame joke preserved from original column).

One problem in worldbuilding is that after we start writing our world, or coding it, we need to keep people’s interest, so we raise the stakes ridiculously. You’re probably especially aware of it from bad media and some games, where the villain apparently has a magical backside that holds plot devices, or suddenly the enemies are a lot tougher for no good reason.  It’s just there to ramp up difficulty to maybe hold your attention.

This “ramp up”is often a natural result of increased competency on the part of the protagonists – as noted in last column, characters growing and applying themselves towards goal is part of any tale, and thus world. But we can way, way too easily fall into jacking up the difficulty level as it were to keep things going.

This is a risk because basically you throw out the laws of your world just to keep people’s attention. Now you might be able to keep it within setting constraints, but based on many things I’ve seen . . . I wouldn’t take the risk.

Now my answer to this is “just build a good world”, but there are traps we often fall into.  So to help you out, let me note a few common ways of raising the Stakes that we can do with out:

  • The End Of The World As We Know It – And I’m Annoyed – Turning things into world-threatening crises when they weren’t, aren’t, and can’t be explained may keep attention but is really obvious and worldbreaking.
  • The War Of Heaven And Hell And Good Taste – Sometimes stories wander into supernatural territory and next thing you know everyday stuff or even non-everyday stuff is a theological smackdown. That’s good if that’s your intent, but trying to get metaphysical just to keep interest can be quite lame.  You can also have the stakes raise to such ridiculous levels with pasted-on-morals that it might as well be a kind of Potemkin Apocalypse.
  • The Last Best Extremely Contrived Hope – Another way people jack up the odds is creating a chosen one who’s the only person that can save things. THis is pretty much the aforementioned Idiot Plot or Planet of the Morons. And it’s unbelievable, worldbreaking, and annoying because it stands out (and it’s over done).
  • The Destiny March of History – Suddenly, characters discover destiny, legacy, or something else that makes their struggles More Important. Meanwhile the audience doesn’t buy it.
  • The Sudden Ramp-Up – Suddenly things are tougher . . . because.  Not due to cause-and-effect.  Not due to a master plan.  Just you ramp up the stakes with some plot device to keep interest.  Yes, it’s obvious.

Don’t jack up the stakes inappropriately. Don’t rip your world apart to wedge a piece of extra excitement in. It’ll break your system. And sure, some creators get away with it, but some don’t.

Do you want to take the risk?  Are your stakes worth it?

No, they’re not.  Build a good world.  If anything, just find the most exciting parts of it to tell.

In Closing

Know the Stakes people are fighting for and what they’re trying to do. Understand the results – but let them be part of your setting. Otherwise you risk mapping tropes or easy-outs to keep interest – and people will know.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at http://www.musehack.com/, publishes books on career and culture at http://www.informotron.com/, and does a site of creative tools at http://www.seventhsanctum.com/. He can be reached at https://www.stevensavage.com/.