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?


Current work:

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.

Previous Work:

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.

  • How did your novels fare with agents, publishers, and test readers? You write that "[t]his process has worked many times", so apparently you have written "many" novels and must have received some feedback. Did anyone mention this problem? If not, maybe it does not exist.
    – user5645
    Nov 16, 2016 at 13:37
  • Sorry, I should have clarified. The method has worked to supply stakes for the novel and wrap up all loose ends. The 'novels' that I refer to are test novels, designed to hone my skill. They were never intended to be published. This is only the third novel that I have used this method for, so (proof)readers haven't had a chance to notice any similarities. Nov 16, 2016 at 19:16

4 Answers 4


I think this is a great question, and I commend you on your self-awareness.

If you're having trouble conceiving of a drive for your hero on your own, I suggest you go through some of your favorite books — books that you enjoy, books which click, books you re-read — and try to pick apart what the hero's drive is.

Some examples off the top of my head:

  • By the Sword, Mercedes Lackey: The heroine is a mercenary. Her primary drive is to stay alive and employed so she can continue to feed/clothe/shelter herself, and then secondarily when she becomes captain, to lead her people with the minimum number of casualties. So survival and responsibility.
  • The Sherlock Holmes stories: Solving the puzzle. That's it. That's all Holmes needs. He has to solve the puzzle. Might be a crime, might just be a mystery, but without a puzzle, his mind tears itself to pieces.
  • Any given romance: Love. A loves B, B loves A; A pines for B, B is married to C; A and B met on a train and have to reconnect, et cetera.
  • The Harry Potter series: I'm sure there will be discussion of this, but generally, Harry wants to survive Voldemort and the Death Eaters and their repeated attempts on his life, and stop Voldemort from taking over the world. He also wants to avenge his parents, but I never read that as his main purpose. Passing high school is not an inconsiderable drive for him either.
  • The Belgariad: fulfilling a prophecy and averting the end of the world.
  • The Maggie Hope mysteries: It's her job. Maggie is working for the British government during WWII, and has various assignments. Protect the princess, get such-and-such smuggled across the border, find the murderer. Even if she might not have had personal stakes in the problem, she's been ordered to do something.

Now go through some other books and see if you can figure out what drives the protagonist.

  • 1
    Thank you for your examples, Lauren. Especially Holmes. That one really clicked for me. The stakes in the last line are a perfect answer that wraps up all loose ends, and it helps to reinforce what I think is the answer. I've edited the OP to include it. Nov 15, 2016 at 20:06
  • @ThomasMyron glad I could help! :) Nov 15, 2016 at 20:34
  • 1
    @mbakeranalecta They are all driven by the desire to solve a puzzle. It is their personality traits which make them different characters, to the point that the initial drive might not even register at first: Nero Wolfe, for instance, allegedly hates working and has to be forced into each and every case he solves, but even he enjoys a good mystery.
    – Lew
    Nov 16, 2016 at 14:28
  • 1
    @mbakeranalecta Then everyone is driven to fulfill oneself by any means necessary--this is a broad generalization as well, yet nevertheless true. What Lauren referred to as a drive I would call an apparent motivation of the character within settings of a given story, and I still think that the use of the word drive is perfectly acceptable here.
    – Lew
    Nov 16, 2016 at 15:46
  • 1
    ... Well for me 'solving a puzzle' is nowhere near enough to justify a character's action (in a story, that is). What does it for me is what follows, the stake: if Holmes does not solve the puzzle, his mind tears itself to pieces. Without that last bit, it's just another loosely driven mystery novel. Nov 16, 2016 at 19:22

Possibly one of the mistakes you're making that is leading to repetitive plots is the idea that any given character in a story will have only a single goal that defines and directs their life.

This may lead to highly plottable stories, but it won't lead to complex, multi-layered characters who readers will enjoy, identify with, and care about, because nobody is really like that in real life. We've all got multiple goals which often times are completely incompatible with each other... Like I want to be a writer, and a farmer, and a race car driver, and an artist, and also a good father and husband... and I want to write good code.

It's the conflict between our goals and dreams that make us interesting people, and it's what informs us when we're faced with choices and have to pick one and we can't tell if one choice is good and one choice is bad.

As a really tight plotter, the place you're going to need to bring out your inner chaos is in the beginning - the brainstorming stage. I'd say give your characters a bunch of goals, some of them conflicting, with one of them being the main one you'll use to drive your plot. Do the same thing with your supporting characters.

Here's an analogy for you, brought to you by my kids:

I have two kids that really like to play chess. They're young, they know the basic moves, and they don't really think very many steps ahead, so their games all kind of look the same, with both of them pounding away until they each only have a couple pieces left and are chasing each other around the board.

Enter the toddler and a new game called Combat Chess.

The toddler can't talk much, can't be reasoned with much, but she knows her brothers are playing a fun game and she wants to play too.

So Combat Chess goes like this - two players play a normal game of chess while the third, the toddler, can move any pieces she wants around the board, take any pieces she wants off the board, add any pieces she wants back to the board - including any of her toys, and the other two players have to play the game no matter what changes she made.

The older kids quickly decided that it makes the game much more interesting and fun to play. Plus they stopped getting into trouble for yelling at the baby.

So that's my way of saying - sure, go ahead and plot everything out, but start off from a place where you're not using the same old ideas to generate the plot in the first place.

  • +1 for the example. :) I think you're confusing plot and stakes though. My plots are not similar at all. They are vastly different. It's just the drive of the character that is similar. And this doesn't mean the drive is the same, either. To put it in terms of an equation, Character wants to do A because he failed to do A in the past, and now knows the results of that non-action. He now feels driven to do A, to avoid repeating the mistake he made in the past. That formula can easily fit any goal of any character, maybe with some minor tweaking. Nov 16, 2016 at 19:29
  • And as for your first part, about the multiple goals: that's good advice. It doesn't work for me, but it's still good advice. The reason it doesn't work for me is that I create my novels with a theme, a specific message in mind that I'm trying to tell the reader. Everything in the novel has to be about that theme. Adding in random goals that may or may not be central to the story become distractions. Again, great advice, it just doesn't work for me. Nov 16, 2016 at 19:32
  • Can I just commend you and your co-parent on your parenting skills that your older kids thought the toddler addition was fun? It's like Calvinball Chess. Nov 17, 2016 at 22:47

What strikes me about your examples is that the goals are quite abstract. This may be the peril of taking such an analytical approach to developing a story (there are, of course, perils in every approach). Stories are very concrete things. Some very particular person wants some very particular things for a very particular reason.

Taking an analytical approach to the study of fiction has led people to see all the millions of specific concrete stories are breaking down into a handful of basic patterns. (The exact number varies.) We find that thousands of stories of particular boys falling in love with particular girls in particular times and places, losing those girls in particular ways, and winning the back in particular ways, can be analysed down to a pattern: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back.

Seeing that pattern does not in any way diminish the pleasure we find in reading any of the particular stories on which the pattern is based. Nor does it imply that the author of those stories was consciously creating an instance of that pattern. They were telling, and the reader was reading, a particular story, and it is the particularity of the story that not only makes it compelling, but makes it unique.

The finding of common patterns is the point of analysis. Apply an analytical method to all of your stories and you are going to find repeating patterns because that is the nature of the method you are employing. And it fundamentally does not matter, because what matters to a reader is the particularity, the concrete grittiness, the tactile warmth, the particular quality of light and sound and smell that makes a story real.

Now, whether or not your extreme plotter approach is actually compatible with writing such as story is another matter. Regardless of whether there are repeating patterns to be found in your story, the question that should perhaps concern you is whether this method creates an actual concrete flesh and blood character or an animated archetype that performs all the technical functions of a hero but lacks that essential grittiness and particularity that is essential to the reader's enjoyment of each story in particular.

If the story strikes the reader primarily as an instance of a pattern, then the fact that each story is an instance of the same pattern will doubtless strike them as will. But if the story strikes the reader primarily as a real and concrete incident in the lives of real people, then the next story will doubtless strike them as another concrete incident in the lives of real people, not as a repetition of a familiar pattern.


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.

It is a perfectly valid approach to developing a single character. Your problem is that you decided to turn it into a method (a particular form of procedure for accomplishing or approaching something, especially a systematic or established one), which by definition will turn all your characters, whose mentality is shaped by the same mold, look pretty much the same.

Some might argue that many people in real life are pretty much alike. Whether or not this is true, it is irrelevant to fiction, because your fictional characters--all of them--must serve different purpose in your story, and stand clearly apart from one another.

There is no point of having character A hate character B, because B's clansmen killed A's parents ten years ago, and B hate A, because A's brothers raped B's sister in retaliation the year after. They are basically the same character, and the sooner one kills another, the better off the story will be with just one.

Call it a method or not, you have to use a different one for each and every character you create.

...go through some of your favorite books ... and try to pick apart what the hero's drive is...

That will certainly help. Another thing is to observe real people and figure out where their motivations and goals are coming from. Not everyone has a dramatic life-defining experience in the past.

I forgot, in what movie or TV series a serial killer says: "No, I was not abused and tortured as a child. I just really like what I do..."

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