The Key To Emotional Engagement: High Personal Stakes
One of the most important dynamics in fiction writing is the establishment of emotional engagement on the part of the reader. While there exists an array of techniques in the writer’s toolkit useful for accomplishing this engagement — verisimilitude in characterization, setting continuity, and sensory detail all serve to make the fictional world and the characters who inhabit it more relatable regardless of how fantastic that world or those characters may be.
But the most important tool in a writer’s toolkit goes for emotional engagement with the characters every bit as much with the plot: conflict.
But, more specifically with regard to the characters, the personal stakes for each of them.
It’s important for the writer to have a clear vision not only of the overall stakes of the story’s plot, but of the personal stakes for the characters taking part in it. Here’s an example:
The larger stakes of Iron Man are that Obadiah “The Iron Monger” Stane is selling advanced weapons to rogue groups, including the Ten Rings terrorists. But that’s not why the stakes matter to the audience, except in the abstract. The stakes matter to the audience because they are personal stakes to Tony Stark. Stane’s machinations put his name and the name of his business in jeopardy, but that’s not what drives him.
What drives him is the very personal statement, That’s not what I do anymore. That’s not who I am anymore. I’m breaking from my past and setting course for a better future. That’s why I have to do something about this.
The stakes there are intensely personal and so make Tony Stark an undeniably relatable character for anyone in the audience who has ever made a mistake they wish they could atone for in a truly meaningful way. (That’s pretty much all of us, really.)
In Ghostbusters (the 1984 original), the stakes, superficially, are that ghosts start rampaging throughout New York City, and eventually some kind of Elder God emerges to destroy humanity.
But that’s not what makes the ensemble of the Ghostbusters emotionally resonant with viewers: it’s their personal stakes. Initially, the stakes are: We are not a joke. We’re serious scientists and entrepreneurs. As the overall stakes increase, the personal stakes become: We can handle this. Both variety of personal stakes are eminently relatable and resonate with viewers on an emotional level.
In Neil Gaiman’s novel, American Gods, the superficial stakes are pretty abstract: Which Gods will humanity worship? Classical gods like Odin, Anansi, Czernobog/Bielobog, and Vulcan? Or the new gods we’ve erected in their place, such as Media, Technology, and the material World? That’s an awesome premise (and I’m using ‘awesome’ in its classical context here), but it doesn’t provide emotional resonance.
The protagonist, Shadow Moon, provides that. Shadow is a man who was taken out of the world for three years, and just before he’s due to return discovers that he’s lost everything he thought was worth returning to the world for. He is, in some respects, much like the character of Tom Hautmann from Spider Robinson’s short story, “The Time Traveler.” (If you haven’t read it, do. And then continue to read the rest of Robinson’s fine book, Callahan’s Cross-Time Saloon, because Robinson has probably forgotten more about this topic than I’ll ever learn. But I digress. And I have a lot of fun doing it.)
Shadow Moon is one of the more ironic examples of personal stakes: His story practically begins with him losing everything he had to lose — but as he gains new personal stakes, our bond with the character deepens from initial sympathy to a personal emotional resonance that might not have been possible any other way in a story with such a cosmic premise.
The above demonstrate clear and obvious instances where personal stakes for primary characters can lead to emotional resonance between the reader and your story. Pay conscious attention to this in your own work; what’s personal about the story for your protagonist? Just as importantly, what’s personal about the story to your antagonist?