A story is nothing without personal stakes. No matter how villainous the villain, or how lofty the goal, it doesn’t matter to the reader unless it matters personally to the characters.
In this post, I pick on a particular example of a book I did not finish because the life-and-death stakes didn’t matter to the protagonist. I also give advice on how to convey meaningful stakes as a writer.
“The terraforming groups didn’t want me pummeling planets or moons. Mining companies were fine with me hitting ice comets, but wouldn’t hear a word about hitting their precious metals backline artillery.”Ship of Fuls by James Krake
“At least you were safe and slept in your own bed the whole time,” Marcus said.
Ray laughed. “My own bed! They strung me out on amphetamines and had me running cargo to launchcraft whenever the cannons were cooling off between shots. I didn’t get a wink of sleep and they thought it was all good because they catered food to the base.”
Marcus burst out laughing. “Sounds about right. Still I would have preferred your job to mine.”
“What about you? You were there, right? Were you defending the star chute?”
Ship of Fuls by James Krake is a military science fiction novel. The writing is clean, easy to read, good blend of action, dialogue, description, and emotion. The world building is excellent. Economics drive the organization of infrastructure and human settlements. The faster than light mechanism is well thought out, efficiently introduced in few words without bogging down the story with information dumps.
The backstory of the perspective character in this universe is deep. There’s a meaningful galactic war and the faster than light limitations- I haven’t seen better consideration of faster than light communication outside of The Expanse or Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, which definitely seems like it was an influence on this author. The premise is solid, with an early inciting incident, putting a capable character in a situation that he’s unsuited to dealing with.
So why is this story not working?
Motivation. The main character doesn’t care about anything. He’s a jaded old combat veteran, which is fine; that’s a common character archetype. But one of the first things most writers do with that archetype is embroil said character in a situation that makes them care, or that threatens something that they didn’t realize they actually do care about.
Takeshi Kovach in Altered Carbon is the exact same archetype. It starts out where he has been reborn, for lack of a better word, into this world and he’s lost everything. He does not care about the problems of this world.
But what immediately happens is that other characters try to entrap him and get him emotionally invested in their schemes by bringing up things he cares about, and it works. Kovach doesn’t remain aloof and uncaring, at least not for long anyway.
Unfortunately, the main character of Ship of Fuls, Marcus, doesn’t care and it takes too long for him to care about something.
This comes from about 35 percent of the way through the book -I read it on a Kindle- and the quote from the book is “This was the first real choice I had, and I chose to act.”
Okay positive points: He chooses to act. That’s good. You need a character that takes some action, right? But this is 35 percent of the way through the story and “It’s the first real choice I had.”
Way too late for that to happen and it’s kind of undermined a little bit later, 38 percent of the way through the book, quote, “The only thing I can do is wait. Again.”
Not good enough.
I lost interest at that point. Maybe right after that it becomes absolutely amazing, and all the action breaks loose. Too late for me as a reader. And it’s really a shame because this book is otherwise firing on all cylinders. It is probably still worth a read if you’re interested at all in supporting good solid self-published science fiction. If you’re interested in military sci-fi as a genre, then this is certainly the best self-published military sci-fi I’ve ever read. And it is not the only.
The icing is really tasty on this book, but you gotta have some really nice cake underneath and for me the cake is personal stakes for the character, his motivation. Why does it matter to Marcus?
So what do we, as writers, do to fix this issue – to make the stakes personal?
It’s not enough to just say what matters to the character. One thing is that the reader needs to feel the impact of loss or potential loss in the body of the character. I like when writers have character ache and cringe and wince and have squirmy guts and heat in the face.
I want to feel temperature. I want to feel physicality in the emotions. It’s probably not the most important thing, but that’s one of the items on my list.
Number two: The reader needs to witness the importance of the stakes through the actions and decisions of the character as they strive for the desired outcome, and against the feared outcome. Characters gotta do stuff to get what they want, and they have to have something that they want.
Number three: The reader needs to learn why what they want is important through the backstory of the character. What’s their past pain or joy that has made this person care about what it is that they care about? What has made the stakes matter to them in a way that would be different from somebody else who these same issues might not matter to?
I would love to know in a comment if you think there’re other ways to communicate the importance of personal stakes.
I want to wrap up by saying, writing is hard and if you’re missing one element in your writing, it’s often very obvious.
When people point at popular books and say “that’s trash,” what they’re really saying is “that book doesn’t have the particular flair that I like in my storytelling.”
But go read Twilight. Go read The DaVinci Code or the Jack Reacher novels. Any of these things that gets labeled as garbage, and I think you will find some fundamentals of gripping storytelling and I think that has got to be the core.
Writers get distracted by using pretty words and by “writing rules.” Writing rules can be helpful, but if they aren’t the flare that you’re adding on top of that really tasty solid foundation of cake, then it does not matter.
Some of the books that I mentioned; those crappy popular books, a lot of them have nonsensical world building, absolutely no interesting metaphors or pretty phrases. Some of them are just like enormously dialogue heavy, but a good story is not built on interesting metaphors. Conflict and choice are fundamental. Making consequences personal is also fundamental.
So, hopefully, I provided some good tips. I do not mean to crap on Ship of Fuls, in particular, or self-published, in general, but I wanted to use it as an example of one aspect- when every single other aspect was working for me- why the book did not work, and how I think it could be better.
All right, so thank you. I hope this was helpful to you as a writer and you enjoyed. I’ll see you next time. Bye folks!
1 thought on “Did Not Finish: Personal Stakes”
Another great review Neal. I find few things more annoying as a reader than the adventures of Captain Feh, an angry, unmotivated butthead who wanders around expecting the plot to fall on his head and make him do stuff. Your commentary reminds me of when I ran dice and paper RPGs back in the 80s (no, not D&D, but sort of similar). I had an established long term plot and world established, with lots of flexibility for new characters. But they had to conform to a few basic rules:
1. What is the “hook” that will make your character a part of the bigger story? What about their background, personality, powers, etc., will tie them into what’s going on?
2. This game involves a group struggling to solve various problems. Will your character insist on being a crazed loner and never interact with anyone else?
3. When they are first introduced, will the get involved or just ignore everything?
A surprising number of newcomers didn’t want their characters to conform to these basic ideas. I see the same problem all the time in fiction.