5 Ways to Improve a High Stakes Character Arc

Writing a character arc with a high stakes goal is not for the faint of heart. Pushing characters to act in ways that are hopefully never a part of our own lives or nature takes a steadfast soul, an appetite for excitement and drama, or both.

This is especially the case in genre fiction, where we have characters facing extraterrestrial threats, cutthroat fights for a throne, and lives hanging in the balance as timers count down.

Be they protagonist or antagonist, hero or antihero, giving a character a high stakes goal and throwing a few obstacles in their way isn't enough for a memorable story. Instead, be strategic, intensify the character arc, and a good story will be elevated to greater heights.

Let's explore these strategies as illustrated by the actions of Margaret Beaufort, grandmother to Henry VIII and great-grandmother to Elizabeth I, as fictionalized in The White Queen TV series (based on several of Philippa Gregory's novels).

Before we continue, be warned this post contains significant spoilers for The White Queen and the Season 1 finale of The Spanish Princess, as well as a mild spoiler from Episode 5 of The White Princess.

Establish the Depth of the Character's Drive

What makes a goal different from a wish? In stories, much like in life, the difference is in taking action towards the end result. A character might wish to open their own restaurant someday, but if they don't develop their cooking skills, network in the culinary industry, or look into business loans, that dream will never be a reality.

A high stakes goal requires tenacious action, and the more ambitious it is, the further a character must go to achieve it. If you want a reader to invest in the outcome (whether or not the desired outcome for the reader would be a successful one for the character), you have to show the character striving for it.

For some characters, this may be even be an all-consuming endeavour, much like it is for Margaret. The further we believe a character will go, the more powerful it can be if they ultimately experience a crisis of faith.

Throughout The White Queen, we see Margaret plotting and scheming, never wavering in her resolve to bring her son home and to see him on the throne of England. She acts to the point of committing treason multiple times, risking not only her own name and life but those of her family, too.

To Margaret, unseating the York monarchs and restoring the "rightful" line – which ultimately leads to her son, Henry – is the most important thing in the world, and we're not just told this; we're shown, numerous times, how far Margaret is willing to go.

Create Uncertainty for the Reader

What's more interesting: when you know exactly why a character is so determined to accomplish something, or when you're left in the dark about their true motives?

Both have advantages, but keeping a reader on their toes is never a bad thing, especially if you want them to keep turning pages long past bedtime. Whatever the ultimate truth behind a character's motivations, planting a seed of uncertainty in the reader's mind creates intrigue.

One of the things I love about Margaret's story in The White Queen is that you're never entirely certain about her motives: is she campaigning completely selflessly on behalf of her son? Does she truly believe it's God's will or does she have any sense of earthly ambition playing a role?

Although there are differences between the TV series and the book series by Philippa Gregory, this interview on YouTube sheds a fascinating light on how and why she wrote Margaret the way she did, including the inspiration behind Margaret's religious visions.

Margaret would certainly have you believe that everything she does is at God's behest and that she is merely his humble servant. Still, there are moments when she clearly expresses an alternative, or at least additional, motive besides putting her son on the throne. After an unsettling encounter with her mother, Margaret tells young Henry exactly what she envisions for the future.

God has said you will be king and you must hold that in your heart. And when you are crowned king, my mother will kneel to me and she will call me "Margaret Regina".

The White Queen, Episode 2

Therein lies the question: how much of this ambition is for Margaret's benefit and how much is for her son? Michelle Fairley, who played Margaret in the sequel series The White Princess, suggested that Margaret's visions of personal grandeur were not the goal but a reward for walking the long, hard road of helping her son claim the throne:

"She’s a very religious person and she believes in the power of God. She sees her son’s rule as her vocation so, therefore, believes that she’s on the side of the just and deserved. Her child was in line to the throne and that was denied him, so she had to set about claiming his birthright. It’s a double-edged sword: It’s about her son getting what’s his and also Margaret achieving it. That’s why, when her son becomes King, she, rightly, gives herself the title My Lady the King’s Mother."

Michelle Fairley, Entertainment Weekly (link no longer available)

In The White Princess, Margaret's husband, Lord Stanley, mocks her supposed selflessness, prompting this exchange:

I am selfless. My only interest is the will of God.

How fortunate his will is so often in tune with yours.

What do you mean?

His will to place you here as mother of the King knows no bounds. He ordered the murder of two small boys in your cause, did he not?

The White Princess, Episode 5

To which Margaret has no response.

Decide the Point of No Return

For every high stakes situation, there's a point of no return, a crossroads which helps define the character from that point onward. It irrevocably affects their future, their life, possibly even their soul.

One of the most poignant ways to craft this point of no return is to ask, What line is my character unwilling to cross? Dig deep until you find the answer.

Now give them a compelling reason to cross that line. Something related to their goal, the ambition to which they've devoted everything to date.

Your character now has a dilemma: how important is their goal compared to what is being asked of them? How far are they willing to go over the line? A little? A lot? Not at all?

For some characters, this may be the point where they realize how their ambition has twisted them, compelling them to change their ways. Other characters will waver and step back from the line, but be forever haunted by that dastardly phrase: "What if?" And still other characters will tear down the wall standing between them and the other side of the line, cross it, and leave a piece of themselves behind.

After years of scheming and machinations, Margaret finally comes up against the cruellest obstacle in her son's path to the throne: the young York princes, who, as far as she knows, are both locked away in the Tower of London. So long as they live, they're a threat to everything she's fighting for, everything she's sacrificed for, but they're just little boys.

We've never seen Margaret falter in her resolve ... until now.

This is your plan to put your son on the throne. If the Princes are dead, then he is two steps closer. The people will not choose Henry over them.

I brought the little one to life myself.

War is hard. What are your commands, my Lady?

You would have me order the deaths of two boys, only nine and 12?

Well, say the word and we will rescue them from their wicked uncle and free the Queen, too. Would you like the royal family of York restored, with a little Prince Edward on the throne?

Stop it.

Well, then, you must choose! Save or slaughter? Hmm? Which is it to be? Save or slaughter?

Obviously, the men must kill them.

The White Queen, Episode 9

What's the Cost and Lasting Impact?

A high stakes goal takes massive action to achieve, and some of these actions take not just a physical or emotional toll but a moral one, as well. Even if you're writing a character so steeped in their own righteousness and lack of moral culpability that none of it bothers them, there will still be a cost to them, a lasting impact.

Even the smallest pebble tossed in a pond creates ripples. A high stakes goal achieved with no consequences whatsoever is frustrating and unrealistic.

In The White Queen, after giving the go-ahead to kill the princes in the tower, Margaret remains unsettled by her decision throughout the episode. When the first attempt fails, we hear her question, for the first and only time, whether God does truly want her son on the throne.

Why could we not reach them? You want the boys to live? I am your obedient daughter, so if it is your will that they should take the throne and not my son, then you need to give me a sign. You need to give me a sign right now!

The White Queen, Episode 9

Later on, once she understands the deed to have been done, she's still squirrelly, and only regains her signature confidence in the next episode.

Ultimately, this decision haunts her for the rest of her life. When she finally meets her demise in The Spanish Princess, it's moments after seeing visions of the dead boys, standing by her bed, waiting.

Is the Character's Drive Vindicated?

After the passion and sacrifice invested in achieving such a high stakes goal, there's one last thing to figure out: does it work? Does this character accomplish what they set out to do or is it all for naught?

The moment of truth, of realizing the character's ultimate triumph or defeat, can reveal more than simply success or failure. It can also be an opportune moment to shed light on the character's true motivations. Remember the uncertainty we talked about earlier, causing the reader to doubt whether they could really trust the character's motivations? This is where you can confirm the reader's suspicions, throw a curveball, or leave them in the dark.

After dealing with festering doubts in the last episode, an eclipse in the season finale of The White Queen restores Margaret's fervour.

Oh, it's a sign! It's a sign the York reign is ending. The sun in splendour is being put out and the new king will come like a dragon. My son must sail! His time is come!

The White Queen, Episode 10

When Henry wins the Battle of Bosworth, defeating Richard III and taking his Crown, Margaret is full of righteous glory ... and something else, too. The last line of dialogue she has in The White Queen has nothing to do with her son. Gazing up to the heavens, she declares, "I am Margaret Regina," leaving this viewer with the belief that as much as she professed to be doing this all for Henry, she was doing it as much, if not more, for herself.

For my part, I was never on board with Margaret's mission to put Henry on the throne in The White Queen; I was aligned with the Yorks, particularly Edward and Elizabeth. That being said, I wouldn't have wanted to see her character written in any other way, at least not for a show like The White Queen. This show was at its best when it went all-in on ambition and emotion and consequences, and Margaret never failed to deliver in this respect. Even when I despised her and rooted for her machinations to fail, I admired her steadfastness and couldn't tear myself away.

Could you write an equally fascinating story about Margaret where she's not so ruthlessly tunnel-visioned? Absolutely! From what we know about the real Margaret Beaufort, she was an incredibly clever woman who spent her life gaining security, power, and independence for herself in an age when that was next to impossible for women.

Read more: Margaret Beaufort: Mother of the Tudors

As for her ambitions for her son, that, too, is based in history, though in a less all-consuming fashion.  Nicola Tallis, one of Margaret's most recent biographers, said that when it comes to fictional portrayals, "[T]he overwhelmingly accurate theme is Margaret's love for her son ... and that's certainly true from the source material. [...] It's not true to say that from that time [of his birth] she had visions of him wearing the crown, and that she believed that it was his God-ordained right, but he did become her sole primary focus, and from that time onwards her life really revolved around him and, you know, protecting his interests and keeping him safe."

There is absolutely rich potential for stories about a less ruthless, yet equally driven Margaret, but it would be a different kind of story. Characters who dive in headfirst and refuse to let go - or let go only under incredible circumstances that leave them forever changed - are compelling and breathlessly fascinating, and that's the kind of story readers love.

So the next time your muse comes to you with a character whose goal is as risky as they come and whose drive is equally strong, don't be afraid! Use the strategies we've discussed today to strengthen their character arc and craft a high stakes story that will keep readers riveted until the very end.

Pin away to return to Margaret's machinations another day!