There are a lot of ways to challenge a character. Intellectually, emotionally, physically, spiritually, depending on the character in question the options might be limitless. Yet as writers, there’s often a tendency to hang the major stakes of the story on the physical side. A character might go through a journey of self-awareness and emotional growth, but the way that manifests is them accessing the newer tier of ass-kicking power just in time. I’m certainly a fan of this, not saying it’s a bad tactic. “Show don’t tell” is a common writing advice phrase, and those kinds of structures allow visible demonstration of growth that occurs in the mind.
However, I also like playing for non-physical stakes as well, and that’s more what I wanted to talk about today. I’ve gotten an email or two curious about why my protagonists sometimes break the mold of being weaker than the threats they face, so I thought it was an element worth diving into. For today, we’ll largely focus on Corpies, since that’s the most obvious example to pull from.
In Corpies, there is never really any fear that Owen/Titan is going to die. Nor is there meant to be. As one of the most powerful, notoriously indestructible Supers in that world, it would be silly to try and hang the crux of the tale on something so unlikely as Owen getting hurt. The stakes of that novel, at least for the protagonist of it, are all entirely non-physical. Sure, there is action, however the tension of those scenes comes not from fear that Owen will get injured, instead it comes from fear that he’ll fail.
That’s the thing; you can’t have no stakes, because that would be a boring book. So rather than fear of losing physically, Owen’s stakes are entirely mental and emotional. Yes, that punch from a goon won’t hurt him, but will he be capable of handling it if he fails a citizen and gets them killed? What about a teammate? Or what the media says? Corpies is a book about a man not sure if he can, or should, still do the old job. There are plenty of spots where Owen could have folded or veered off course, even without taking a scratch. That’s what I mean when I say you can build your stakes in non-physical ways.
A great genre to look to for education in this is romance. Few romance novels traditionally end with a large-scale battle between mythological armies, yet their characters all grow through the stories regardless. Those are novels in which virtually all stakes are emotional, with some variants like fiscal or health occasionally added in, and they are part of a thriving industry with millions of happy readers. Pick a few up, try them out, and learn from how they handle setting up their challenges. Even if romance isn’t your preferred genre for fun, at a certain point you should be able to look past the genre and see the writing structure you’re trying to learn from.
Truth be told, reading outside your genre now and then is a good policy overall. Different genres have their own habits and traditions it can be easy to get stuck in. Going out and seeing how other stories address the staples of conflict, plotting, arcs, growth, and climax can open up entire new options and ideas you might never have found playing only within the lines of your own sandbox. Book stores are dying, and with them dies the hard category designation most of us grew up on. Genres are starting to fade; you can break convention more easily as people accept that it’s about the story more than the category boxes it tics. Don’t be afraid to learn from outside sources, that’s what helps keeps stories fresh and new.
Along with stakes, it bears mentioning that not every book needs an actual villain. Often times, the best antagonists aren’t people at all; they’re things much further past the protagonist’s control. For example, if the stakes of the story are getting into college, then your antagonist could be an apathetic school system, a huge daunting test to act as a final act milestone, the emotional toll all the studying takes on their social life, etc. None of those things are individual people, yet they all need to be struggled against and overcome, or else the protagonist will suffer loss. There’s no person to go talk to or reason with, it’s the march to adulthood, keep up or fall by the wayside. That, written properly, could be far more haunting and looming than if the antagonist was just another student pissing in the MC’s locker and threatening to beat them up.
At the end of the day, your story should be about challenging the protagonist. The old explanation of what a plot is still holds up pretty well: “Man goes up tree. People throw rocks at him. Man comes down, changed.” So if you want to write about a protagonist with amazing physical power, then don’t make the challenges come from that avenue. We’re seeing this used well a lot in modern fiction. One Punch Man works because you’re never wondering if Saitama will win the fight, you’re wondering if he’ll make rent this month. The Incredibles was more about Bob’s inability to cope with normal life than the risks of being a Super. Attack a character’s weaknesses, not their strengths. It’s what their real enemy would do, and in a strange way, you are the ultimate antagonist to your characters. After all, without you, nobody would keep intentionally fucking with their lives.