Stakes in Fantasy Novels: A Schemata of Classification

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Secondary World fantasy novels the last year or so. The human urge to classify things and, if not put them in boxes, at least come up with a way to organize them is as old as cuneiform tablets, and probably predates writing, too. To name something is to classify it.

Today, I want to talk about a proposed classification schemata for Fantasy novels.

In June 2011, Courtney Schafer did an excellent guest post here at SF Signal on Epic and Urban Fantasy, where her debut novel, The Whitefire Crossing, does or does not fit in that paradigm, and how to look at fantasy and make sense of the field. In the comments to that post, I proposed a Venn diagram (shown here) that was much discussed downstream of it.

Since reading Courtney’s post and listening to some SF Signal podcasts on Sword and Sorcery, I’ve been coming around to an idea from my interest and knowledge of roleplaying (something that readers of Roll Perception Plus Awareness should be familiar with), and its an idea Courtney’s post speaks to as well. That idea is one of “stakes”.

Stakes are what the actions or inactions of the protagonist cause to happen, or fail to happen, depending on their success or failure. Stakes in roleplaying can range in scale from a single scene or combat to the stakes of an entire campaign arc. We can apply that logic of stakes to fantasy novels and stories as well, and even come up with a way to classify Fantasy novels at the same time. As mentioned above, you can have multiple sets of stakes going on at one time, but you can look at a work of fantasy in terms the largest stakes, and use that to give an overall sense of the scale of the conflict in that book.

For example, let’s look at Leiber’s Ill Met in Lankhmar. (I’m going to spoil it, but really, if you read Sword and Sorcery or Fantasy, period, you need to read this. It won both a Hugo and a Nebula for best Novella, too, if you need further incentive. Go read it.) Ill Met In Lankhmar tells the story of how Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser’s first meeting in the titular setting. As you might expect from a pair of thieves, they do not meet in an Inn, but rather while trying to rob the same person. They split the loot, get to know each other, and then, egging each other on, engage in a foolhardy infiltration of the Thieves’ Guild of Lankhmar, which leads to a retaliation that is fatal to their lady loves. They then go and kill the warlock responsible for their deaths. The overall stakes of the work are really centered only on the two men, the people they love, and how to pay for their next meal. If they don’t go to the Thieves Guild, or don’t avenge Ivrian and Vlana, no greater consequences would happen. The stakes are small.

Martha Wells secondary world fantasy The Cloud Roads (reviewed here) is somewhat larger than just the fate of Moon, as his presence and actions have repercussions not just on himself, but his entire adopted family of Indigo Court.

Next, let’s look at something with even larger stakes: Courtney Schafer’s The Whitefire Crossing. While the focus of the book is on the trials and travails of Dev and Kiran, it emerges that they are elements in a plot that has the future of the city of Ninavel in its sights. The success or failure of the actions of the pair, then, have stakes that are at a city-state level, even if they aren’t explicitly aware at first that they are. They have personal stakes, but also larger stakes riding on their actions. A good layered narrative with subplots does this as a matter of course.

Further up the food chain, we get what Jo Walton calls Kingdom Fantasy. The stakes ramp up to the fate of a duchy, a kingdom. A whole bunch of fantasy falls into this category, with all sorts of gradations and variations. I could name any number of series here, and so could you. The Emperor’s Knife (recently reviewed by me, here) falls at the upper end of this spectrum since the fate of a rather large Empire is at stake.

Even larger than Kingdom Fantasy is World Fantasy. World fantasy is when a good chunk of a world or even the entire world’s fate are at stake by the protagonists actions or inactions. This is the big wide-scale fantasy of Tolkien, Martin, and Jordan, and their kith and kin. The new Elizabeth Bear novel Range of Ghosts seems to fall in this region as well since the fate of a number of kingdoms appear to be at stake.

Can you go bigger than the fate of an entire world? You bet!

Above World Fantasy is Cosmic level Fantasy. This is when not only the fate of the world is at stake, but rather the fate of more than a single world. Sometimes the viability of all reality, an entire multiverse, is at stake. Some of the Eternal Champion works of Moorcock, with the struggle between Law and Chaos, reach this level, as do some of the books of the Roger Zelazny Amber Chronicles. You could make a case for Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, too.

So, the “Weimer Stakes Score” is a logarithmic scale of the largest stakes present in a fantasy work. I use a logarithmic scale in order to emphasize the ever-increasing scope of the conflict and its stakes. A Weimer Stakes score of around 1-3 are generally where lowball stakes novels hang out. The stakes range from the personal to, at most, the fate of a city. A score of 4-6 is indicative of Kingdom level fantasy. At 7-9, you have world level fantasy. The fate of the world is at stake. Above 9, and you are into the fates of the entire multiverse, the biggest canvases and biggest stakes conceivable.

In general, sword and sorcery and what Anne Lyle and Courtney Schafer call “adventure fantasy” is found in the lower numbers of the scale, epic fantasy in the higher numbers, and they meet in Kingdom level fantasy with a large amount of overlap. This is where my original diagram above falls down on the job. Sword and Sorcery does give way as the stakes get larger, but the “feel” of sword and sorcery can carry up into realms that would normally be only considered “epic”. You can have small bore fantasy that is epic in tone, if not in scale. Call that Heroic fantasy, perhaps. Some people take urban settings with small bore fantasy and call that Urban Fantasy. I happen to think Urban Fantasy should be set on Earth, but your mileage may vary. In any event, that sort of fantasy has a small Weimer Stakes Score.

Series can and do increase the scope of stakes as they go along. Its an essential ingredient, I think if you expand a narrative. Take Jon Sprunk’s Caim series. Shadow’s Son is relatively low stakes, at the most the fate of the city of Othir by its end. Shadow’s Lure expands that to Kingdom level, as we start to play with more and large polities. What Caim and Josey do or don’t do have repercussions that run to the fate of nations. (I have not yet read Shadow’s Master, the third and final book, and so I do not know if Sprunk goes even further up the Weimer Stakes Scale in his series.)

Even the master, J.R.R. Tolkien, might be thought of as working up the Weimer Stakes scale in his work. Consider how for the most part, The Hobbit is a really small story of 12 dwarves and a hobbit trying to get a treasure from a dragon. By the end of that story, it creeps up the scale with the results of the Battle of Five Armies. And of course, The Lord of the Rings eventually kicks things up into the upper echelons of World fantasy.

And, just as Godel taught us, no logical system is ever complete. I am not sure where I would rank, say, Cold Magic and Cold Fire by Kate Elliott. It seems like an intimate story of her and hers, but the scale isn’t quite as personal as Ill Met in Lankhmar. Bigger things seem to be afoot, too. The Elizabeth Willey novels written in the 90’s have a scale and canvas that is cosmic, but a story whose stakes which might be more down at Kingdom or World level.

Still, stakes are important and they matter, no matter the scale of the novel. What are the stakes of the novel you are reading? What are the stakes of what you are writing? How aware are the characters of those stakes?

4 thoughts on “Stakes in Fantasy Novels: A Schemata of Classification”

  1. Excellent article, Paul. I’ve had similar thoughts on my mind as I’ve been writing my latest WIP, which initially is VERY character focused on the protagonist’s thoughts of revenge. As the story progresses, he realizes he’s just a cog in something larger so by novel’s end, the scope naturally broadens.

  2. The books that interest me (and that I like to write) have multiple layers of stakes, as that adds to the complexity and realism of the story. We all exist in multiple levels–and most of us find out that apparently low-stakes decisions made well in the past can have high-stakes consequences…or that what seemed like high stakes at the time turns out to be trivial. The personal is political–and vice versa–and the political is intensely personal when it impinges.

    So in both the early Paks books and the later ones, characters are faced with choices whose possible consequences they cannot fully know. As they move through the story, the implications of their choices become more obvious, at more levels. Paksenarrion herself, in the first books, started out just wanting to get away from home and become a hero. (The “I’ll show you, just you wait!” attitude of the rebellious adolescent, something I lived through.) Yet as she progressed, her decisions affected more and more people–at higher and higher levels of power, in more than one realm. She grew from rebellious teenager to catalyst for drastic change. The current group started with that situation and moved on–considering the interactions of those effects in both neighboring and distant lands. It’s clear also (clearer in this year’s book than before) that something else is going on–the characters feel that, but haven’t figured it out. With two books more to come, I’m not giving spoilers, but the stakes rise up…um…pretty darn high.

    Yet for me, for a book to work, it can’t be all empire v. empire, or supermen against monsters…it has to be personal. It works through the characters–their motivations, arising from their innate characteristics and their experiences. It matters who they are, what they think and feel and do, the precise details of what they experience.

    For me, when it gets too cosmic–then it loses intensity as a story. The universe will cease to exist if Superhero A doesn’t achieve Goal X in someone’s blockbuster? Ho-hum. It’s not a real universe anyway; it’s just a bunch of pages. That can happen at almost any level, when the writer’s desire to enlarge the story’s importance by raising stakes is greater than the writer’s ability to make the story equally deep to readers. In other words, the height of the stakes must be balanced by the depth of the character foundation–the complexity and believability of the characters. Had Leiber tried to overload Ill Met in Lankhmar with cosmic significance, the book would have made Fafhrd and the Mouser unbelievable–mere plastic playing pieces in a morality tale. At their level, they could only play on the small board. Leiber had more sense; he kept them where they played extremely well.

    At the same time, the lower level stakes need to be included in the higher stakes stories. They ground the story, they keep the complexity of the situation in front of the reader, they show how apparently small stakes morph into greater ones as characters maneuver…how a father’s desire to reach out to another family through marriage has perilous consequences a generation later, for instance.

    1. That’s an excellent point I didn’t quite highlight, Elizabeth.

      The Scale talks about the largest stakes in a work, but that hardly means its the only stakes, or sometimes its not even the most interesting stakes at play in a book. Showing the “personal” side to a conflict draws out and develops character in a way that a purely epic conflict doesn’t always manage. Or, as you did with Paks, using the small stakes as the lever and the agent of larger changes, larger stakes. Indeed.

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