It’s not so easy. We readers have become jaded with the flood of high stakes scenarios. Then how do writers reach their audience? By raising the readers’ sympathy for the protagonist.
A character has two types of strengths, those that drive the story forward, such as perseverance, strength of will, courage; and secondary strengths, those that don’t drive the story, such as compassion. What if your character’s compassion is tested? The reader cares deeply whether the character can hang on to her compassion in the face of whatever horror you’ve inflicted on her. Reach deep into your character’s soul to find what is true in all of us and then test that. That becomes the stakes.
But you could make any strength drive the story. Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird demonstrates how compassion can drive the story forward. Although Atticus is a modest, quiet man, we learn early in the story that he’s the best shot in town when he kills a rabid dog. The reader could suppose at this point in the story that Atticus’s strength (good with a gun) will drive the story forward. Instead it’s Atticus’s sense of morality and compassion that drives the story to its brilliant conclusion.
Donald Maas says in Writing the Breakout Novel: “The character’s stakes will seem strong only to the extent that the character is sympathetic…How can you generate in the reader the same warmth, concern and love you feel for your protagonist? By allowing the reader to know the protagonist as intimately as you do…we cannot help but like people that we know very well, whatever their faults. Understanding leads to sympathy.”
Who is your character’s closest ally? Kill her. His greatest asset? Lose it. His most sacred conviction? Erode it. Deadline? Shorten it.
Escalate the misery. Your character is battling for she believes in. You must throw extra losses at her, ones that surprise both your character and your reader. And remember, kind writer, all this trouble will make your character a better, wiser homo fictus.