Character Motivation Entry: Avoiding Certain Death

What does your character want? This is an important question to answer because it determines what your protagonist hopes to achieve by the story’s end. If the goal, or outer motivation, is written well, readers will identify fairly quickly what the overall story goal’s going to be and they’ll know what to root for. But how do you know what outer motivation to choose?

death stakes, high stakes, stakes in fiction, character motivation

If you read enough books, you’ll see the same goals being used for different characters in new scenarios. Through this thesaurus, we’d like to explore these common outer motivations so you can see your options and what those goals might look like on a deeper level.

Character’s Goal (Outer Motivation): Escape Certain Death

Forms This Might Take:

  • Being in an apartment building that catches on fire
  • Being imprisoned by someone (a serial killer, terrorists, kidnappers) who has no intent of letting one live
  • Being a prisoner on Death Row
  • Escaping a concentration camp
  • Being a POW (prisoner of war)
  • Escaping enemy territory when “shoot on sight” orders are in effect
  • Being slated to appear before a firing squad or hanging judge
  • Living in a land where all occupants are being exterminated (by hostile forces, aliens, etc.)
  • Discovering one has been poisoned (and in need of an antidote)
  • Being abandoned in a hostile climate (in a desert without supplies, shipwrecked, etc.)
  • Suffering torture that is growing increasingly violent
  • Suffering extreme sleep deprivation
  • Being grievously wounded and in need of medical help to survive
  • Having an infection that must be treated before toxic shock sets in
  • Suffering from hypothermia, extreme thirst, or extreme hunger
  • Begin expendable (as a slave, as a witness, etc.)
  • Being exposed to radiation or another harmful contaminant
  • Being in the path of a destructive element (a forest fire, flood, tornado, nuclear fallout, etc.)

Human Need Driving the Goal (Inner Motivation): physiological needs

How the Character May Prepare for This Goal:

  • Track the movements of one’s captors or gatekeepers
  • Assess the weaknesses of others, or a location one is being held at
  • Lying in order to gain support or obtain a measure of power or control
  • Obtain a map of the area
  • Push one’s body to the limits (traveling in extreme heat or cold, resisting fatigue, etc.)
  • Secure (or make) weapons
  • Scout for, buy, barter, or steal supplies
  • Prepare to fight, and if necessary, kill
  • Use one’s skills, strengths, knowledge, or sexuality to obtain what one needs
  • Steal keys, access cards, or a lock pick to escape
  • Make bargains with anyone in a position to help
  • Hold other people hostage to get what one needs
  • Cross moral lines to survive

Possible Sacrifices or Costs Associated With This Goal:

  • Being maimed, scarred, or disfigured during one’s escape
  • Having one’s health compromised in the escape to the point where one is never the same
  • Becoming jaded by humanity based on horrors one witnesses during the plight
  • Revealing a secret or closely guarded information in order to escape, knowing it will have difficult repercussions later
  • Becoming what one hates to survive (a killer, compassion-less, a user of people, etc.)
  • Being saddled with shame and guilt for the things one must do to survive
  • Losing a limb (to frostbite, due to infection, in an accident, etc.)
  • Crossing a moral line that leaves one feeling unworthy of living
  • Sacrificing others so one may live
  • Being unable to save a loved one and oneself, and so losing them to the situation
  • Being tortured, raped, and abused as a result of one’s bid to escape
  • Causing innocent people pain or hardship in order to escape one’s situation
  • Developing PTSD

Roadblocks Which Could Prevent This Goal from Being Achieved:

  • Too many guards and no opportunity to escape
  • Being secured in some way (handcuffed, bound in rope, secured to other people, etc.)
  • Being in a place where movement is restricted (being locked in a trunk, getting stuck in a tunnel collapse, etc.)
  • Running out of clean air, water, or food
  • Extreme temperatures or weather
  • Having an enemy who is personally invested in seeing one die to the point he goes to great lengths to bring this about
  • Running out of resources
  • Having one’s resources stolen
  • One’s transport breaking down
  • Weapons, technology, or adversaries that one is unable to counter
  • An injury that makes mobility difficult, if not impossible
  • Being responsible for the welfare of others (and having to ensure they escape too)

Talents & Skills That Will Help the Character Achieve This Goal:

Possible Fallout For the Protagonist if This Goal Is Not Met:

  • Death

Clichés to Avoid:

  • Guards who get drunk, allowing one to escape
  • Guards who put down their weapons in order to take advantage of the character (sexually, or to beat them up, etc.)
  • Enemies who attack one at a time, allowing the character to take each out in turn

Click here for a list of our current entries for this thesaurus, along with a master post containing information on the individual fields.




Angela is an international speaker and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also enjoys dreaming up new tools and resources for One Stop For Writers, a library built to help writers elevate their storytelling.
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12 Responses to Character Motivation Entry: Avoiding Certain Death

  1. Mary Van Everbroeck says:

    Hi Angela: This Resource (Character Thesaurus) sounds amazing. I couldn’t locate it. When will it be available? Thanks Mary

  2. ddfalvo says:

    A lot of work went into this – very well done. 😀 Thank you.

  3. Pingback: Writing Links 7/31/17 – Where Genres Collide

  4. Dylan says:

    I have been reading a manga called The Promised Neverland. Where children of the Grace Field House orphanage have their happy lives upended when they find out they’re being raised to be fed to demons. Most of what is listed in this entry is used in the manga. The children are raised to be very intelligent with daily test which the children think is a game because the demons eat only their brains.

  5. Trisha says:

    I remember when I first started posting on Absolute Write back in the day, getting asked this question after posting a query for critique. I struggled soooo hard to figure out what my character actually wanted. Thankfully since then I’ve entirely rewritten the novel in question, and the immediate motive is clearer from the outset. Of course, this motive will change over the course of the novel, so I still have that question to consider overall. 😉

    • Trisha that is great you figured it out, and yes you are right, while avoiding death is a big motivation, in some stories it is a temporary one. I hope the more you think about the character’s missing need, the clearer the other motivation becomes.

  6. A powerful motivator in fiction (and life)!

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