Don’t get me wrong–I like high-stakes… some of the time. But I feel like (in my own writing, at least) I always want to focus on the characters and their personal lives and development rather than the evil king who needs to be de-throned or the swashbuckler who got them into the whole mess in the first place. Like I want to write fantasy, but without the situation being: “the world is about to end!” Is this possible, or would it just make my stories boring?
That’s such a good question, Evelyn!
I think we can take a more nuanced look at stakes. Stakes are fundamentally an agreement between the character and the reader about what’s most important.
In the fantasy genre, most readers are expecting earth-shattering stakes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t educate them to believe that something else is important. However, because the genre has set a certain expectation before the reader even arrives to the book, it will take extra effort to do so.
I think the key, though, is that your story must have stakes. Too often we use “character driven” as an excuse for no stakes at all. If the story is about personal development, so what? What happens if the character doesn’t self-actualize? As importantly, what happens if the character does develop? Even if it only happens to the character himself, what crazy good and crazy bad things are in store? Even if they’re not universally crazy good or bad, it’s up to you to educate the reader that at least to the character these things truly would be earth shattering.
If you build a great character and show us what’s at stake to the character, we’ll go along for the ride. It’s up to you to convince the reader to agree that those personal stakes matter. But that’s just much more challenging than having an obviously bad king who needs to lose his head. 🙂
(I wrote a whole article about stakes here: https://bradpauquette.com/2023/04/how-do-i-set-the-stakes-in-my-story/ Maybe it will help, too!)