I was just reading about how when a character has something they truly care about, that the stakes are raised more now that they can lose it, which leads to suspicion.

But what really drives people to do things?

Is it the thought of dying when being pursued or is it loving someone enough to die for them?

In my novel so far, the main antagonist is invading Earth and the protagonist is trying to stop him. Is it out of selflessness or heroic points?

Does this make any sense?

4 Answers 4


Stakes, in a plot, as not what the character wants, but what they will have to give up to get what they want. Love is a desire. But gaining the one you love may require giving up your pride or your prejudice. Is you character willing to do that? Those are the stakes.

So, Lassie wants to rescue Timmy from the well. That is desire. But the only human nearby is the dog catcher who wants to put Lassie in the pound. In order to save Timmy by bringing the dog catcher, Lassie has to give up her freedom and end up in the pound. That's stakes.

Suddenly, a cougar appears. The dog catcher runs away. Does Lassie stay and defend Timmy from the cougar, who will probably kill her, or does she run away and save her own life.

That's raising the stakes. The desire is the same, but the thing you have to give up, or put at risk, to achieve your desire is higher. That's stakes, just as the money you bet in a poker game is stakes -- the thing you risk to attain the desired reward.

Raising the stakes, therefore, simply means making the attainment of the character's desire require a larger risk or a larger sacrifice on their part.

  • huh, never thought of it that way. Thank you for your input. Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 15:54
  • 2
    Now, if you want to make it more interesting, introduce a subplot about Timmy feeling unloved and ignored, so he deliberately falls down wells because risking his life is the only way to get anyone to pay attention to him. So he gets his desire (attention), but briefly, and he has to keep increasing the risk he's in (stakes) to achieve it. And then Lassie realizes Timmy is doing it on purpose, but doesn't know why. Now she has to ponder: Does she save Timmy if his peril isn't an accident? Does she want to reward his apparent self-destructive streak? Commented Sep 25, 2017 at 9:36
  • ohhhhhhhh, that's good. I think I'll do that for a side character. Commented Sep 25, 2017 at 20:15

A person acting out of charity or selflessness is aiming to help somebody more than they help themselves, and would take such an act even if nobody knew they did. Just recently viewing news of Hurricane Harvey, we see selfless people risking their own lives to save others, and in interviews with the saved, they don't even know the names of their rescuers. Those heroes are not getting any money or fame, or certainly do not appear to have gone out in the flood to seek camera crews.

In fiction of course you can be more certain. The test for altruism is simple: Mental satisfaction or pleasure to be gained by an act doesn't count. From the outside, if Charlie risks tangible assets to help Dave, and in all expected outcomes from Charlie's point of view (success or failure) he will be left with fewer assets after the attempt, and all Dave can do is benefit, then Charlie is an altruist. He may feel good about it if he succeeds, but that doesn't matter.

By 'assets' I mean whatever Charlie could have kept for himself but put on the line to help Dave: His time, his boat, his money, his life, his romance with Elaine. Whatever. If it looks like Charlie only has something to lose by helping Dave, and does it anyway, that is charity or selflessness. If I give a homeless man \$5 and don't speak of it to anybody, that was a charitable act by me.

On the other hand, if I help somebody with the expectation of gain, be it fame, money, or power, it is no longer charitable (even though I may help somebody), it is now commercial. George Lucas wrote Star Wars, but not out of the goodness of his heart: He expected, and received, money. Star Wars has been on balance a net positive in the world, not intended to hurt anybody and an entertainment for nearly all that watched it. But Lucas would not have done the work without the expectation of someday getting money for it. It was a gamble, but the potential for gain is what drove him to put in the time and eventually others to put in the many millions it would take to make the movie and promote it, years before a single dime of ticket sales came in.

On the third hand, if somebody does harm to somebody with the expectation of gain, that is criminal, or at least selfish, cruel, greedy, etc. So Theft, Rape, Slander, Arson, Kidnapping, Murder, Assassination, Dereliction of Duty, Bribery (given or taken), Breaking Oaths and Promises, Cheating on a spouse, Withholding knowledge of a danger or actively Lying about a danger, Deceptions in general with the potential of harm.

On the fourth hand, if somebody simply enjoys harming others, without any expectation of tangible gain, then you have reached the state of either insanity or evil. That includes those that risk something (prison, death, money or other assets) in order to harm others for their own enjoyment: Serial killers, for example.

In human eyes, this is often a matter of weighing things on a simple balance. Say we are in high school, and Frank has a crush on Karen, but Karen barely knows him. Frank happens upon Gary harassing Karen, not raping her but pawing for the fun of irritating her. Gary is a lout and a bully, but Frank steps in to protect Karen, risking being pummeled. Is Frank being selfless? He may gain Karen's gratitude, he may not. He will almost definitely be harmed by Gary. In most people's eyes, on balance Frank is a hero; he likely stands to lose more than he gains, and he stepped in out of love for Karen, whether that love is returned or not.

  • I think I need to take notes, gee. You say so many good things that I can't keep up with them all. Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 15:52

I've always maintained that if you want to write Superman well, you have to know that Kryptonite is not his true weakness.

Ultimately, to make your protagonist relate-able, you have to make his fears relate-able. What makes Walter White a person the audience can relate to and cheer for, even though he is a psychopathic drug lord? It's his relationship with his family... everything he does, he tells us is for his family. We excuse a lot because at the end, he's not some guy trying to sell kids his crap... he's humanized.

If your guy is the hero because he has a moral code... people get that. If he's the hero because he wants to protect someone, that's a good reason too. If he's a hero because "Earth is where I put my stuff" that's fine.

A lot of good heroes will face a temptation. Jesus was tempted by the devil. Luke was tempted by Darth Vader. What could your antagonist offer the hero, on condition that the hero never takes up his sword against the villain, that would make him back down from his fight... or even join the villain?

Throw all the Kryptonite you want at Superman... he'll fight you to his last dying breath. You cannot stop him from fighting you with Kryptonite... you can merely make it difficult for him. But anyone who has ever exerted any control over Superman has never done so with Kryptonite... they did it with Lois Lane.

  • Good points - especially about temptation. And remember, that temptation doesn't always have to result in tangible reward. Luke is tempted not because he wants power, but because he's desperate to know his father.
    – user18397
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 0:42

The key here is in the second paragraph - lots of different things can drive people to do something. What works for the protagonist?

Maybe he/she is doing it out of altruism, thinking the world will be better for everyone without the antagonist's invasion. Maybe they want to be seen as a hero or are seeking redemption for something, so there's some selfish motivation. Maybe they wanted to take over the world themselves.

The protagonist might truly care about any of these, and all points between. It all depends where you're going with the protagonist's character.

  • (I like your username) and also, that is true. My character is a bit wayward, given that he is only 16 Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 15:47

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