First of all, let me explain that I am a plotter, and that I am an extreme case. This means that I develop my novels basically down to the scene before I even think of writing a first draft. This is how I write.
Every novel needs deep stakes. This is generally accepted by writers as a whole. There always has to be something at stake, and that something has to matter greatly. I've studied stakes in depth, and come to the conclusion that they work on two levels: the stakes that matter to the hero (private) and the stakes that matter to the reader (public). I am aware that a lot of authors have other stakes. I do not. This is just how I write.
Being a plotter, I have a process that I go through when I develop a novel. This process has worked many times. Recently though, I've run into a slight issue in the area of stakes. I describe it below:
The main character needs a drive, some internal reason to complete the goal. Without that drive, the hero is not involved in the main conflict, inviting the reader to ask why he cares about what he is doing.
The drive is most commonly the private stakes of the hero. It is what he can't lose, what is driving him to complete the goal, whatever that might be. All is well and good with the process up to this point.
I have trouble creating the drive/private stakes. I can (with some work) create a good drive, but there are always loose ends, and those loose ends have further loose ends. I never seem to be able to pin down exactly why the drive matters so much to the hero.
Fortunately, I have a method which wraps up all loose ends and yields a very powerful and inescapable drive and private stake. This method is that whatever the hero can't lose or have happen, he did lose or have happen somewhere in the past, and is now living with the result, and either cannot do so again, or is hoping to atone for what he did.
The problem? This is the only method that seems to work, and it's getting repetitive.
I have a few examples below, but the question is: Is this a problem? If all of my main characters equally have a failure in their past that they are trying to atone for, won't that start to get old for readers? It works fine in one novel, sure. But two novels? Three?
Goal: To remove inner hatred of an individual
Drive: Hatred injured innocent bystander by accident. Character realizes hatred must go.
Problem: Needs to matter more. This is the drive. The hero cannot live with what he has done. Why?
Solution #1: Innocent bystander is a loved and respected mentor, who told hero to stop his hatred. Hero cannot live with look of disappointment. Why? This has to matter deeply to him.
Solution #2 (Method): Hero failed someone he cares for in the past, and, living with that pain and regret, cannot do so again. He cannot fail the mentor. He must get rid of his hatred.
Goal: To be capable
Drive: Failed to be capable once, something bad happened as a result.
Solution (Method): Hero's mother died in past, hero was unable to save her. Now is driven to save others so that one day, he will be capable of saving her as well (in the realm of his mind; he knows she's dead).
Shortly after posting this question, I came across what I believe to be the answer:
It dawned on me that the only difference between what I had and what the method did was time. The method put something in the past. That made me wonder why this made things different. The only thing it did was give the character more time to consider the consequences of his failure in the past.
I realized that I was waiting for the character to 'come to me'. What I needed to do was mold the character so that what I had at stake mattered greatly to him. I had to create a hero that cared about that stake, not create a stake that the hero cared about. I was trying to create a stake that would turn anyone into who I needed, when what I should have been doing was creating a person who couldn't ignore the stake I already had.
Ah, the joys of over-analyzing everything.