(Pant, pant) Sorry, I’m late. I was up very late last night, and early this morning, too, with a trilogy of first-person mysteries. I’m going to talk about some general spoilers, so I won’t name the series, but if you’ve read it, you may recognize the main character.
But first, stakes. In fantasy and space opera, the stakes are often of the highest category: the whole world is in danger, and only one person can save it. Or possibly the fate of the universe.
But these super-huge stakes can feel impersonal. We should care, yes, of course, there’s no arguing with that. But let’s face it, we don’t KNOW those other people in the world, and our caring can have a vague, fuzzy quality of, “yes, yes, on the whole, it would be nice if we could all get along and people weren’t dying over there – but there’s nothing *I* can do about it. And I’m glad Superhero X is saving the day, but maybe I’ll just close the book for now and google ‘what’s for dinner.’”
More powerful stakes have faces and the sort of eternal connection to the hero that most of us can relate to – a sibling, a spouse, a pet.
Perhaps the most powerful stakes of all are about ourselves.
In the books I was reading yesterday and today, there’s an interesting semi-arc about the hero’s hand. He’s a jockey who mangles it in a racing accident, and loses his career. He is driven to do something useful, and winds up detecting. The misshapen hand is trouble, it’s an obstacle, it’s a constant reminder of what he lost. And then, during one turning point, an evil villain destroys it.
The result is fascinating. I believe he does have a few regrets as he learns to use his “myoelectric” hand. But soon, he actually finds he’s better off with the clean break. His new hand can be used as a club. If it’s broken, he must pay “2000 quid” to get it replaced, but it *is* replaceable. He learns to live with the hand, and it is a reminder of his past every day, but it isn’t a reminder every minute, like his mangled hand was.
And then, a bad guy puts more pressure on by threatening the hero’s whole hand. And we realize what a thin cover of comfort our coping strategies are – the hero knows exactly how much pain and suffering he endures with the loss of one hand, and the thought of the loss of two hands is almost enough to make him weep. And we, who identify with him, feel like weeping too. It’s very powerful.
So, what am I saying here? Well, I’m not arguing that the stakes have to be big. They do. But what I’m saying is sometimes saving the universe is just a flat little cliche, and saving your hand can drive you and your plot to do desperate, crazy things. Even a little stake can mean the world.
I often find those end-of-the-universe stories really boring. For one thing, how can you escalate the stakes throughout the book? But also, as you say, how can you, as a reader, identify with the universe? That hand sounds a lot more interesting—and a lot more fraught.
Yeah, the ones I like about the end of the universe almost always have subsidiary stakes. “How can I prove today that I’m the smartest kid on the block so my grandfather won’t euthanize me?” And hey, if it takes saving an empire to do that, he’s there.
(-: And you are so right — in a series, you’ve got to have an expanding universe if your main stakes are only about saving the universe.
One thing I really took away from the last 48 hours of read-a-thon is that there are fates worse than death. Or at least, they feel like the misery and humiliation would be worse than just dying and getting it all over with.
Must have been an interesting trilogy if it had you glued for 48 hours, Michaeline, though maybe not my thing – if I weep over a book, I want it to be tears of happiness. Totally with you about the stakes, though. If I care about the character, and the stakes are desperately important to that character, then I’m all in. Concrete, specific and relatable beats saving the universe every time.
I used to think I didn’t like sob books, either. But . . . I think it might be that I just cry easier.
Also, there’s a difference if I feel that the sad part comes from the character, or if I feel that the sad part comes from the author. Of course, as Kay kind of says, the string-pulling aspect is just bad writing. It ALL is manipulation. The main character is not whiny at all. In fact, if anything, I get a tiny bit annoyed at his sainthood. He blames himself for turning his ex-wife from a sweet young girl into a shrew, but we never see him doing bad things to her (except going silent).
But, I’m not going to blame the writer — that’s extremely trick territory. I’d rather read the stoic saint with interesting thoughts than the slanging match between two irritated characters. (Example: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not my kind of humor at all.)