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Why stakes work

Sure, the view is great, but why would anybody go to all the bother of building a castle up there? Can you imagine how long it must have taken to haul all those stone blocks up the mountain on donkey carts or whatever? I mean, seriously—put an observation deck up there and build a staircase if you want the view, but why build a whole castle up there? Must have cost a fortune!

No doubt it did. So why do it? Why build a mountaintop castle there in picturesque San Marino, and why do it on hundreds of other peaks scattered across Europe? Why not build your castle somewhere more convenient?

Because what’s mine is mine

There’s one simple reason. Defense. Mountaintop fortresses are much harder to conquer than fortresses down on the flats, which if you’re considering where to build your castle during medieval Europe, when the wars never ceased and national borders shifted faster than mapmakers could keep up, is a major selling point.

Trust me, we’ll see what this has to do with the stakes in our novels in a minute. The point is, build your stronghold on a mountaintop, collect all your wealth (what’s left after building the castle, anyway) and power there, and you’re much more likely to keep somebody from taking it away from you.

Gain versus loss

What’s mine is mine, so the saying goes, and what’s true for kings is true for commoners: people will generally put a lot more effort into keeping what they have than in obtaining something they don’t have. Behavioral economists call this “divestiture aversion” or alternately “the endowment effect,” although I quite prefer the latter for its obvious double-entendre possibilities. I swear. Only a bunch of behavioral economists could suggest a name like that with a straight face.


The endowment effect can play out in grandiose castles or in more subtle ways. British traffic enforcement assigns you “penalty points” when you get caught speeding and so forth. But the Italians do it the other way around: they start you out with 12 points and take them away for traffic infractions, because subconsciously the urge to preserve your points is a stronger motivator to follow the rules.

Why does it work?

I can’t say for sure why people act this way, but intuitively, we understand that they do. Our language even reflects it through phrases such as “what’s mine is mine,” and its implied counterpart “don’t you dare try to take it.”

Personally, I think it has to do with emotional attachment. We become attached to the things we have. Material things—stuff we have earned by the sweat of our brow, things we have been given by loved ones, or simply things we’ve had for so long they become part of the fabric of our lives. Abstract things—our sense of identity, legal and political freedoms, our physical abilities. And of course, other people through their relationships to us.

Put in slightly different terms, if you break the “World’s Greatest Dad” coffee mug my kids gave me, it isn’t sufficient recompense to buy me an identical mug. You can’t replace the emotional attachment I had to the original mug. Although the two mugs may be identical, the one my kids gave me has a higher value to me, because of the emotional attachment, than a new one fresh from the store.

If someone cares to do some MRI scans or something, I’d almost bet money that this effect stems from the more ancient parts of our brains, the ones that are also responsible for parenting instincts. The instinct to value our children more highly than anything else and protect them even up to our own deaths is deeply rooted in biology and survival of the species. To me, it’s not a great stretch to imagine our shiny new neo-cortexes generalizing this parenting instinct towards everything we consider to be ours.

That’s my theory, anyway.

Using the endowment effect in your novels

Ok, here we go, and you’ll be glad you stuck with this article because there’s plenty you can do with it.

Create a strong emotional motivation for action. You ever get stuck in your novel, knowing that a character needs to do something—say, stand up to her heartless and insensitive boss—but you can’t figure out a plausible reason why she’d do it? Use the endowment effect. Link the action you want her to take to the defense of something she owns or hold dear, and you’ve got it. The thing she holds dear becomes additional stakes pushing her towards doing what you need her to do.

For example, maybe your heroine works at an ad agency that’s doing a pro-bono work for a women’s shelter fundraiser. Her boss doesn’t care, since it’s not for a big account client, and wants to simply recycle a similar ad campaign from ten years ago. You need your character to say “No! That’s not good enough. That ad won’t play today and you know it!” But why would she do it?

Let’s go big-stakes: What if her sister’s staying at that shelter, having only narrowly escaped from drug addiction and a violent husband? And what if the shelter is running on a shoestring, and needs a big take from the fundraiser in order to pay off their creditors and stay in operation? If the fundraising campaign fails, your protagonist might lose her sister: the sister would be turned out on the street, and might well slip back into her old life, complete with drugs and abusive husband. Only this time, she might not survive.

Under those circumstances, wouldn’t she fight hard to do whatever she could to keep her sister off the streets? You bet she would. And if that means standing up to her boss and demanding that they put as much effort into the fundraiser promotions as they would for a national brand ad campaign, then by god that’s what she’ll do!

That’s perhaps a melodramatic example, but you get the picture: if inaction threatens to cause the loss of something a character values, the character will be motivated to act. But remember: keep it proportional; in most cases, the lengths someone is willing to go to in order to avoid a loss should be commensurate with the degree of that loss. Readers will believe a parent throwing themselves in front of a train in order to push their child out of the way, but they’ll have much more trouble believing the same action if, say, it were a stray kitten on the tracks. No matter how cute the kitten.

Create a dramatic bluff. If someone is explicitly threatening to visit a loss upon your character, you can ratchet the tension and drama in a scene right up to the roof by having the character proclaim that he doesn’t, in fact, care about whatever’s being threatened. Viewers of Lost will remember the scene where Benjamin Linus claims not to care about the girl some amoral commandos are holding at gunpoint. They make the standard offer: do what we want, or we’ll shoot her. He bluffs: “Go ahead. She means nothing to me.” The girl, of course, is his daughter and in fact means a great deal to him. Instant drama.

Convey the importance of something else. That same scene from Lost achieves another storytelling goal as well: it quite effectively conveys the degree to which Ben values the secrets he is trying to protect. He values them so much he’s willing to put his daughter up as the ante in a very high-stakes bluff. This can work whether the character wins or loses the bluff, but in my opinion it’s more effective if the character loses. Actually suffering the loss of something the character values—being forced to follow through on the sacrifice—will convey the importance of the other thing much more clearly. After all, the deadliest urge a writer can fall prey to is letting your characters off the hook.

Create a believable victory over a stronger opponent. The flip side of the endowment effect is that, all else being equal, if one person is trying to take something belonging to someone else, the attacker’s motivation to follow through will be inherently less than the defender’s motivation to hold onto what they have. That scene from the end of Stand By Me where young Gordie Lachance stands up to the much stronger town bully Ace Merrill is just such a scene. On the surface, the two are vying for the glory of reporting the location of the missing boy’s body to the authorities. That’s all Ace is fighting for. But Gordie is not only fighting for that glory, but also for his own self esteem and the memory of his brother. For Gordie, the emotional attachments pulling on him in that moment are so much stronger than those pulling on Ace, that not only is it totally believable to see Gordie pull a gun on Ace, but also that Ace backs down.

The basis of stakes

Whatever the reason, whether it’s emotion or biology or both, people will fight hard to hold on to what they have and what they value. It’s such a powerful lever controlling the actions our characters that I would argue the endowment effect is in fact the basis underlying the whole concept of stakes in our novels. More writing books than I care to name (E.g. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!) talk about the importance of having compelling stakes in your novel. And well they should. But not a one of them I’ve ever read has stopped to talk about why it is we care about stakes at all.

It’s because of the endowment effect. A novel’s stakes, whatever they are, represent something that is had by the characters, by society, or whoever. The central conflict puts this thing at risk. Thus, characters are motivated to defend it, sometimes even at the cost of their lives.

June 19, 2010 04:21 UTC

Tags: character, endowment effect, stakes, bluff, motivation

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