Stakes (and limitations)

I’ve been thinking about stakes and limitations in storytelling. High stakes are the terrible consequences of failure. Failure is something to fear. In a low stakes world there is little to fear and thus little tension.

Limitations placed on a character ensures that he or she has a flaw or weakness, when they might otherwise be unbeatable. This is especially true with fantasy characters with magical powers, monsters, robots, and superheroes.

I got thinking about this after watching Season 3 of Westworld, and figuring out what made me so disappointed. One of the big things, for me, was that characters could die and come back to life. There was no jeopardy anymore. A dead character (one of the ‘host’ androids) could download into a new body, or even clone themselves into multiple copies. Without the danger of a palpable threat there’s no fear of mortality — without high enough stakes there’s no tension.

That’s why when a character has special powers (downloading into a new body, magic spells, superhuman strength, or whatever) their ability has to come with a clear limitation. This makes it possible for the antagonist to dishonourably ‘cheat’, and circumvent their special advantage. This makes the protagonist vulnerable. A vulnerable character is more human. That’s why even the all-powerful Superman becomes a weakling when he’s exposed to Kryptonite. Without a weakness there’s no storytelling dynamic — too much weakness and the character becomes annoying.