What’s at stake?

Character’s in a book require conflict; it’s the basis of plot and what steers the story to great extent.  Without some sort of conflict, all the reader really gets is a laundry list of events and conversations.

A true dilemma comes about when there is something at risk for the character, something at stake that can be taken or lost.  This “something at stake” can be anything.  Maybe it’s pride, maybe it’s a valued object, or maybe it’s even someone’s life.  For each main character – protagonist or antagonist – something must be at risk. Your job, as the writer, is to figure out what the something is, and what the loss of it will mean to the characters involved.  In some cases, the thing at risk isn’t as obvious as it may at first appear.  For example, a valuable piece of artwork may be missing and at risk of destruction, but what’s at stake is the reputation of the gallery director who was responsible for the piece.  A bully may appear to have his reputation at stake, but in reality, it’s his self-esteem that is on the line.

Once the dilemma is presented, it can grow and shift through the story.  In the classic short story “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell, the main character (Rainsford) is presented with a moral dilemma – either hunt human being with General Zaroff, or become Zaroff’s prey.  After refusing to take part in something so barbaric as that, Rainsford is faced with a new dilemma – surviving in an island jungle while Zaroff pursues him like a wild animal.  While each of these dilemmas creates an interesting story, what’s really at stake for Rainsford is whole way of thinking, his perceptions of himself.  He shifts from an identity as a big game hunter, to prey, to a barbaric hunter of a human being.  That’s what makes the story truly interesting. What’s at risk is Rainsford’s very identity, the loss of which leads down a very dangerous path.

As you work with your characters to build interesting, believable people, also think about what’s at stake in your character’s life.  What is the dilemma the character must deal with, and also, what is it the character really stands to lose in this situation.

Happy writing!

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