Welcome to Deep-Fried Friday. Today the subject is about writing and raising the stakes for your fictional characters.
I recently finished reading Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, which I definitely recommend for writers. In one of the chapters, he stressed the importance of stakes.
We all know what stakes are – if you’re gambling. Your stakes are what you could lose in the game if you don’t come up with the right hand. Same thing in a novel. Stakes are what your character could lose if the conclusion doesn’t resolve in his favor.
Thinking about the elementary Bible classes I have taught, I came upon the ultimate biblical character for discussing stakes.
This post will not be about theology or religion. This is a look at stakes, from the perspective of a Bible story which many have heard.
Donald Maass says that authors need to continually ask, “How can this matter more?” and “How could things get worse?” Make your characters suffer, and the reader will feel more invested in the outcome.
Job was a rich man who lived long before Jesus’ time and suffered a lot. The story goes that God and the Devil were chatting one day, and God said, “Have you seen Job? Now there’s a faithful guy.” To which the Devil said, “Oh yeah, if you take everything away from him, Job will stop all that stupid ‘praise God’ stuff.” God said, “Go ahead. Give it a shot. You’re gonna eat your words, buddy.”
Okay, that was a paraphrase. But then the Devil tries a lot of stuff to pressure Job into renouncing his faith in God. What does he do? Well, I’ll tell you. Because if this had been a novel, you likely couldn’t find a better example of stakes-raising.
Remember, Job defines himself by his faith in God. This is a stance he holds dearer than anything, or so he thinks. It hasn’t been tested before.
First, nearby enemies attack all of Job’s livestock and carry them off. They also kill all of Job’s servants, save the one who comes to report disaster.
Second, the fire of God falls from the sky (lightning? meteor?) and burns up the sheep and servants, save the one who reports the loss to Job.
Third, other foreign enemies raid the livestock and take camels. Um, yeah, dead servants. Except one. You’re catching onto the theme.
What’s at stake? Property. Livelihood.
We care about the things we own. Thus, a ransacked home, a tornado-devastated neighborhood, the loss of a keepsake, and a theft matter to us in stories. We work hard to gain our property. In addition, this was Job’s livelihood. Losing one’s job or dream can be a high stakes proposition.
Next, all of Job’s kids – seven sons and three daughters – just happen to be feasting together. Suddenly, a mighty wind blows in from the desert and strikes the house, which falls like a house of sticks with three piggies inside. Everyone dies . . . except of course for that one servant guy who makes it out and reports the bad news to Papa Job.
What’s at stake? Family. Losing one’s sibling, parent, or child wreaks havoc. Even threats to one’s family evokes an emotional response beyond that of hurting our property. These are our loved ones after all.
Again, the Devil strikes. This time, Job has painful sores all over his body – from head to foot.
What’s at stake? Self. Anyone who has had an extreme injury or illness can relate to how awful this can feel. Many fictional characters have their lives threatened by a villain. Moreover, threats to the self can be literal or figurative – such as struggling with one’s purpose or identity.
Next, Job’s wife pops by for a little cheering session. Oh wait, she isn’t there to cheer him up. Her response to everything that’s happened? “Curse God and die!” That one is not a paraphrase.
What’s at stake? Love. The basic theme of romance novels is that love triumphs over everything. To have the person closest to you – your spouse or significant other – trounce your feelings and leave you behind is painful. Job’s wife is hardly the stuff of Harlequin.
Finally, the cavalry pulls in. That is, Job’s three friends come to visit – Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. At first, they’re great: They sit with Job and grieve for a week with him.
Then they turn on him. They say, “You brought this on yourself, dude. You must have sinned big-time for God to swipe at you like this.” Once again, paraphrasing. But they blame him lock, stock, and barrel. Way to kick a guy when he’s down.
What’s at stake? Friendship. There have been a slew of novels in recently years chronicling the importance of friends, especially lifelong ones (Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, anyone?). At this point, Job feels completely alone – abandoned and attacked by those closest to him. He has no support network, no one to lean on.
I’ll spare you the many chapters of Job stating his case as his three friends argue with him about why all of this is happening. (All of their theories are wrong, of course.) In the end, Job keeps what’s most important to him – his faith – and God rewards him. Job gets well. Other friends come to comfort him. He gains more property. He even has seven more sons, three daughters, and lives long enough to see great grandchildren.
Some of my fellow Christians want to pass through the woes of Job and get to that happily ever after as quickly as possible. But raising the stakes did for Job exactly what it would do for any fictional character I concocted and made suffer. It changed him.
Job is a different man at the end of the book than at the beginning. He fought to keep his integrity, he experienced loss, he was personally tested, and he heard the voice of God. Yeah, that’ll change your perspective.
Never in a million years do I want to be Job! But writing a fictional Job isn’t a bad idea. Take him to hell and back and see what he learns from the journey. Test your character’s mettle. Force him to rethink his life. Have readers ask about your protagonist what Jews and Christians have asked about Job for many years: What would I have done in his position?
That’s what raising the stakes in a story is about.
What Bible story or classic tale can you think of that illustrates raising the stakes? Or what recent example in fiction, film, or television illustrates this concept? What have you put your own fictional characters through?