We always hear about how important stakes are for increasing tension and interest in a story’s plot. But did you know the stakes can also be your secret trick for increasing your protagonist’s likability?
The first reason is for this is that the higher the stakes, the greater the character’s risk of facing severe consequences. Readers like underdogs. They want to cheer for someone who’s in a bad spot that only promises to grow worse. If everything is tea parties and rainbows in a character’s life, readers will smile and think, “That’s nice”. But they’re not likely to invest much interest or emotion in the outcome of that tea party.
That’s the obvious reason. So how about a super-secret, awesome reason?
One aspect of high stakes that we often overlook is their ability to make our characters seem like, not just embattled people, but good people.
Let’s say you have a character who wants to enter a marathon, even though the odds are already against him. His boss isn’t sympathetic, so he’s going to get fired if he skips work that day. He has flat feet, so he may end up horribly crippled (you never know!). And, frankly, he’s a terrible runner, so his chances of finishing, much less winning, are pretty stinky.
So far, that’s pretty good. But, really, all we’ve got at this point is a story of a plucky character who is willing to take some risks to do this thing he really wants to do. He’s doing it for himself. There’s no greater cause.
But what if we raised the stakes a little bit? What if he’s running to earn money for cancer research? Or better yet, what if he’s running to inspire his brother who lost both his legs in Afghanistan? Or what if he’s running because if he doesn’t finish the race by a certain time, the mafia will whack his family?
As easy as that, this character takes on new depth. Readers want him to succeed—but not just because he’s an underdog with a dream. They want him to succeed because he’s an underdog who’s willing to risk his job, his pride, and his feet to accomplish something for other people. Sure, if he wins, he’ll get the trophy, and we’ll be happy for him. But we’ll be even happier because he’s doing it for bigger reasons.
Consider your protagonist and his goal. Why is he doing what he’s doing? Is he doing it solely for himself and his own well-being? Or could you raise the stakes by forcing him to take on his mission for bigger and better reasons?