I want to blog about this today because it's on my mind. A question came up in class the other night about stakes--how can stakes raise beyond a life and death situation?
In life, that's true. Survival is the highest stake of all. But in fiction, everything is written in context. Thus life and death stakes are only relevant in context with the theme of the novel. In fiction, life only has relevance in connection with value. In order for the reader to feel the need for a character to survive, the character must express a value, or values. In life, life only has meaning to the extent we possess and express our values. That is also true of fiction, but in fiction it is enhanced. So, the stakes of a character in a life or death situation can only be felt when living or dying will affect a value. It is important for the character to survive in order to write a wrong, correct an injustice, make the world safe for democracy, save another character who's in jeopardy, etc.
Thus, the phrase Torture is Bad is true, it speaks to a personal desire to see the practice end, and a public desire to protect America from being devalued by practicing it. However, it has no relevance to story unless a character who believes that value confronts it. As the stakes deepen, the character undergoes torture, or is forced to perpetrate it. Depending upon how the story turns, and what emotion the author intends his audience to experience, the ending of that story will be either cynical (pessimistic) in which the protagonist becomes what he loathes, or idealistic, in which the protagonist manages to escape his predicament, or ironic, in which the protagonist might unwittingly bring about a resolution that supports what he despises.
Thus, strong character value systems translate into strong personal and public stakes.