What Have You Got To Lose? – 5 Things To Remember When Building Character Stakes

I can’t count the number of times in my life when someone asked me, “What have you got to lose?” Usually that question popped up whenever someone wanted me to do or try something crazy.

“Come on we’re all going bungee jumping. It’ll be fun. What have you got to lose?”

My life, my dignity, my mind…

“Come on try it. It’s not that spicy. What have you got to lose?”

My voice, my cold, my appetite…

“Come on, it’ll be fun. You’ll have a parachute and everything. What have you got to lose?”

My life, my lunch, my legs, my mind…

What I had to lose was much more important than any thrill I’d get out of the dares. That’s why the question never got me  on a rip cord or cliff somewhere.

Our characters have things they don’t want to lose either.

Stakes are why something matters, 0r what your character has to lose if they don’t achieve what they want. Stakes are extremely important in building conflict and tension on the page.

5 Things To Remember When Building Character Stakes.

1. Establish your character goal or what they want to achieve in the scene. 

For Example:  She needed to find the plane ticket.

2. Establish what your character has to lose if they don’t reach their goal. Usually you do this early in the scene. Often it is near the character goal itself.

For Example:  If she didn’t find the ticket, she’d miss her flight.

3. Make sure the stakes or what your character has to lose matters to the character. A five year old isn’t going to care so much about missing a dental appointment. An adult isn’t going to worry so much about rain canceling the baseball game. Make sure you know what your character wants and build on a situation where they might lose it.

4. Make sure the stakes matter to your reader. This is the difference between conflict and tension on the page. If the reader cares about the stakes, then it creates tension. Think about your audience when you create your character’s stakes. Make sure that they care about what your character has to lose also.

5. Build up the stakes to higher proportions when possible. 

For Example:  If Cara didn’t find the ticket, she’d miss her flight and Zach’s flag covered coffin would make the trip home alone.    (We care about this more because we know the details and Zach died courageously.)

What is the craziest thing someone has tried to talk you into? What did you have to lose?

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About Michelle Lim

Author Michelle Lim is the Brainstorming/Huddle Coach with My Book Therapy Press and the Midwest Zone Director for American Christian Fiction Writers. Michelle’s romantic suspense is represented by Karen Solem of Spencillhill Associates and has gained contest recognition in the Frasier, the Genesis, and the Phoenix Rattler, winning the Genesis in 2015 for her genre. Michelle writes devotionals for The Christian Pulse Online Magazine and Putting On The New. Since her nonfiction book release, Idea Sparking: How To Brainstorm Conflict In Your Novel, through public speaking and online chats Michelle helps writers discover the revolutionary power of brainstorming to bring new life to their stories.

6 thoughts on “What Have You Got To Lose? – 5 Things To Remember When Building Character Stakes

  1. Wonderful lesson, Michelle. Your personal examples at the beginning were great illustrations. Scary picture, though. I think I’ve suppressed any dares like that!

  2. Melissa Tagg says:

    Hmm, honestly, nobody’s ever tried to talk me into bungee-jumping or skydiving or anything like that. However, the first time someone mentioned to me that I should consider studying abroad, I considered it crazy–because I did have things I thought I’d lose: normal college experiences that year, friends at home who’d go on with normal life without me, I’d miss out on time with family, etc. But it ended up being one of the most amazing experiences of my life…

    Yeah, stakes. Gotta have ’em or nothing in a story feels important.

  3. Michelle Lim says:

    Sometimes those risks are worth it because their are rewards we just can’t see at the beginning. It can be that way for our characters too. Thanks for sharing that, Melissa!

  4. Like Melissa, nobody has EVER asked me to bungee-jump or sky dive, although someone once tried to get me to para sail. Passed on that one, too. This was a great reminder as I work on my wip, to have those goals and stakes there at the beginning of the chapter.

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