Would it be boring/unrealistic/silly/cliché if most characters only had this main motivation for most of a story: saving humanity/their country/their familly/themselves.

The setting is medieval fantasy, a war starts with an immortal being that cannot be reasoned with. It is like a genocide that only ends when the last human is dead, and the characters are aware of it. They know that in a few days, weeks or months at most they will all be dead. There is no way to survive this. How would people react after their world collapsed suddenly, facing certain death in a near future?

In my story some characters just give up and let themselves die. Some hide in small groups. And the main majority of the humans decide to stick together and fight, even though this is futile and that they are doomed. My main heroes are part of the group of characters which decided to hold on as long as possible. My problem is that I feel that they lack defining traits because they all have the same goal and the same motivation: they want to survive, they want to save the world. Money, power, revenge... none of those things matter anymore. It is all about surviving.

I have a pretty precise outline of the events from the beginning to the end of the story, and the actions of my heroes always seem logical, but what I feel I miss is character arcs/motivations. The differences between characters have been diminished because they are in a perpetual life-or-death situation. What they cared about before does not matter much anymore to them. They lack secondary motivations apart from saving themselves/the human world.

Would such a lack of secondary motivations be a problem and if yes, how to fix it?

  • 4
    Too short to make it an answer, but: if the 'resistance' hangs on for long enough, power, revenge, lust... it'll all boil back up. Yeah, X wants to save humankind (well, himself, really), but that may not stop him from trying to have his own harem (hey, he's protecting those women, ok? And he's ensuring there is plenty of children to repopulate the world.). As for N, disagreeing with X's ideas will have the group killed. Might as well kill N for the greater good. In the end though, they may all still die, so X might as well enjoy life while he has one. Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 13:55
  • 2
    I don't know if I quite understand the problem here. Beyond the fact that it's a supernatural being causing it, you're basically just describing life (albeit a hard one). People know they are supposed to die, and it's futile to try to stop it; yet they live, and fight to continue living in most cases. I guess I just don't understand what point you're trying to get at. Are you concerned that due to the seriousness of the risk, that they are basically ignoring any human motivations? Does survival just feel like a weak motivation when you actually try to address it in your story?
    – JMac
    Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 14:42
  • @JMac Life implies the certitude of death as a person, but there are generally children. In my story, it happens in a small time interval. A few children are not going to compensate and save the specie. So yes, I was considering that the seriousness of their situation could make every internal conflit and personal gain motivation meaningless. If we ignore the people who give up on life or decide to enjoy their last moments, then we are left with a lot of characters with the same heroic motivations, and not much secondary goals because they can't really project themselves in the future.
    – Dreamk33
    Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 16:02
  • They can't project themselves in the future because what is the point of preparing for the next harvesting when you know you will die during the winter? What is the point of wanting a baby when you know her mother will be dead before 9 months? This is a very strong assumption indeed, I am sorry, but it is needed because my story is about a world without hope. They fight because it's in their values, they feel they are heroes, but there is no real hope for any character to win/survive for a year because they know that the ennemy is immortal and how much ressources and armies it has.
    – Dreamk33
    Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 16:06
  • 1
    @Dreamk33 I think for many people, the natural response is to try to survive. Secondary motivations get quickly overshadowed by how much is required just to keep existing in the present. I guess the problem might be keeping it interesting, I think Totumus' answer is good for that aspect. I guess the other question is, why wouldn't they try to save themselves? Based on what you've explained, it seems impossible to make the outcome any worse. It would probably be more interesting to go out trying.
    – JMac
    Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 16:31

10 Answers 10


People are complex. We always have more than one motivation. Always.

On the most basic level, your division into groups is correct. Some will just wait. Some will hide. Some will run. Some will kill themselves. Some will fight.

However, believing that this grouping is all there is to say about a character is way too simple.

Help or not. One important distinction is helpers vs selfers. Some people will help others, some will help themselves. All the groups above will contain both kinds. Actually, most characters will have both tendencies and act either way at different times.

Hope. You say that things are hopeless, and most of your characters will probably agree. But there is always some people who hope, who will try to instill hope in others.

Bargaining. Regardless of how pointless it is, some people will try to bargain with the immortal, try to reason with them, try to please them.

Infighting. If this society has had a "scapegoat minority", they are going to be blamed, regardless of how illogical or pointless it would be.

Leaders People like to feel important, they will try to become the leader of whatever group that are with. A group with two or more leader candidates has a problem. How much are each candidate willing to do to become the leader? People will differ.

Children Some children will be too young to understand what is going on. What will their parents tell them?

Split families One parent wants to hide. The other wants to run. Who gets to keep the children?

Religion This is going to bring out all the nutcases. And they will gain followers.

All these aspects affect most of the characters. Mix and match!


You are too focused on the here and now. The actions happening to your characters are important, sure. But what about their thoughts and feelings?

Are they scared to lose what they had before the conflicts? Are they angry that they are the only ones to fight while they see others just give up? Are they hopeful for a better future, or do they hope to get their old lives back?

Characters always have a secudairy motivation. If you haven't found them yet, dig deeper in their physche. Flesh out your characters more, they are not emotionless robots


At the core of every story, there is a moral choice. That is, a choice between values. Circumstances force the protagonist to the point where that choice must be faced and made and lived with. Such choices can obviously end well or badly, and can involve triumph or sacrifice or defeat for the main character. But always there is the choice to be faced.

But your scenario does not seem to leave a lot of room for a meaningful choice. Death is certain, not just for the character, but for everybody the character cares about. How can one have a choice of values in a situation in which all values are about to be extinguished?

Certainly, if you are going to find one in such a situation, you will have to look inward. Perhaps the protagonist has been feuding with his father and he decides to overcome his resentment, swallow his pride, and make peace before they both die. But if you want this to be a story, not merely a history of destruction or a nihilist character study, there needs to be that element of choice at the heart of the narrative.

To put it another way, all stories are in some sense redemptive. They are a rebellion against the apparent meaningless of the universe in which we are all bound to die and the material universe itself is doomed to burn out and fade to black. Stories assert that there is actually a shape and a purpose and a dignity in our lives and in the life of the universe. They stick a thumb in the eye of nihilism and despair and say, no, this all means something, it has purpose, it has value. All stories are a rage against the dying of the light, and since yours is a tale of the dying of the light, you will need to find that rage, that hope, that belief in order and meaning, if you want your reader to feel there is a story here worth reading.


At first I would say: You focus too much on your "almighty" knowledge.

Why should the people in your story believe, that the end is unavoidable? It is a matter of fact and part of the humanity, that Humans tend to have hope until everything is over. You have that on the streets everyday.

Some people ravage the streets, some commit suicide, some stick to their families ... and some refuse to give up hope. That is the same as with "Pandora's Box" in the greek mythology. Hope is a bittersweet feeling, that can be a cure and a curse at the same time.

Every person has a personal motivation and that is part of you as the author to describe. "Saving the humanity" is just a basic part of the "Hope" and reason for fighting. But why are your people doing this, instead of ravaging, raping, staying with the family, pray to god, etc. That is what drives to character and makes people to identify with the characters.

Character differences are not out of the way, just because a situation changes. In fact: Some of the differences can increase in such situations.

You see: There is a pretty wide area of emotions, character depths and conflicts that can arise around your characters anytime.


Yes, it is realistic. Other motivations may be out there, like mating and having children, acquiring wealth and/or fame, acquiring power -- but some of these are 'artificial' in the sense that early hunter-gatherers with our same mental capacity did not really have wealth or fame to acquire, they barely knew any strangers, and their lives were indeed focused on survival: Food, safety, and family. That is indeed where the human psyche should go (or revert to) in times of any apocalypse. Even sex, romance or having more children will take a back seat to avoiding death, starvation, enslavement by other humans, etc.

Life first. Fun second. I don't see a problem with that.


Maybe Legolas doesn't have any other motivation than saving his people, friends and defeating the evil. LOTR never really dove too deep into his motivations. What really defined his character was not what motivated him, but what he did. He is an Elf prince that befriended a Dwarf and fought with him side by side, almost as a brother. In a universe where these populations bear a deep-seated resentment towards each other due to past history, this makes the Legolas / Gimli friendship heavily significant and builds the character. Its not his MOTIVATION here, its his ACT.


Of course you can do it! You just need to develop your characters.

Take "The Lord of the Rings" as an example. Does the plot look familiar - "an immortal being that cannot be reasoned with"?

Primary motivation of the book's characters is to defeat the evil. But they are all real people (or hobbits, or elves, or dwarfs) with real secondary motivations. All people will die one day, but this doesn't stop us from living the rest of our lives the way we want (or see as necessary).

  • Yes, my story is heavily influenced by LOTR. Same kind of principle, but an even more overpowered ennemy and desperate situation, but no magic item to destroy to be able to save the day... Does the character of Legolas really have a motivation other than saving his people, his friends and defeating the evil? I would tend to say no, not really. Am I wrong?
    – Dreamk33
    Commented Aug 2, 2018 at 19:13
  • 1
    In LOTR, the main characters may have the same goal, but they have different personalities, and different opinions about how to reach that goal. The book shows how people from very different backgrounds (like elves and dwarfs etc) can overcome their differences and unite towards the same goal. They also have different knowledge, capacities and skills, and they use different strategies to overcome the obstacles.
    – Ghajini
    Commented Aug 3, 2018 at 7:37
  • @Dreamk33 Legolas, like pretty much anyone else in the book, is not singularly focused on avoiding death. He walks, talks, eats and is having a bit of fun. As for his other motivations, he wants not to be outdone by a dwarf.
    – Alexander
    Commented Aug 3, 2018 at 17:56

Self-preservation is an instinct we all understand, so that works. Readers will accept it. But it's ultimately self-focused if you leave it at that. Most people have more tangible reasons for why they want to survive, outside of fear for themselves:

  • You don't want to say goodbye to the ones you love.
  • You still have something to offer the world. Something is unfinished.
  • You think there might be a chance. We haven't exhausted all options.

Each character might have a different motivation, so dig into those. That's where you'll find conflict: when one person decides to hoard food in case he miraculously makes it through, and another just wants to feed her family.

The question you need to ask each of your characters is this: what are you living for? Only in the face of death will they know the true answer.


Well, I'd say that if the character is human, saving humanity is kind of in their best interests.

It's not a motivation that's unique to him as a character, but it's certainly believable. If the villain is a threat to humanity, the hero knows he is, and the hero enjoys being alive, human, and amongst other humans, then sure, he'd be plenty motivated.

The issue you have to face then is why he's the hero and not, well, everyone else in the novel that happens to be human and enjoying life.


Surviving of humanity is the global goal that unites your characters, it's their common point. But it doesn't erase their personality, they still have their inner motivations.

Many other works have explored this path before. LOTR has already been mentioned. IMO Mass Effect 3 is a good example too. An immemorial race of bio-machines eradicate all form of advanced lives in the universe for hundreds of thousands of years. How could we stop them?

SPOILER ALERT (just in case)

Many refuse to accept the truth, as Joker said about the Citadel's news: The last Blasto on the box office, some gardening advises and, short news item: the great reapers' invasion has begun.

Some other tries to take advantage of the situation, such as Cerberus who tries to find a way to control the reapers, or leads a putsch against the council, or Wrex/Wrev who require a cure to the Genophage in exchange of his help.

Some others don't fully cooperate, like council members, who refuse to help other species until their own borders are secured. Or weapon dealers who refuse to sell weapons to police or army if they are not well paid.

Even within the people willing to fight, they are some dissensions: on the way to act, where to fight, how to prioritize … Some old rivalry or trivialities are hard to overcome, even in such extreme situations. Krogans have some difficult passives with Turians and Salarians to overcome in order to fight together.

The fight against global extinction is the global environment of your story, but every character has his/her own story.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.