Well, that is The Question, isn’t it? (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself!)
In our writing series, this is a good time to explore inner drive for a character if they don’t have some personal loss as the inciting incident to kick off their quest. Many super heroes and heroes in fiction DO, because it’s an excellent inciting incident that is filled with emotion. That’s why so many heroes lose a parent, a sibling, a girlfriend, etc. in their origin story: it’s a life-changing moment that triggers a change in the protagonist.
Yes, almost every super hero has a personal motivation for what they do, (like Batman’s loss of his parents or Spider-Man’s loss of Uncle Ben), but that doesn’t mean that is what’s at stake in every story, or the driving force for every hero.
Sometimes it’s a personal, internal driving need that fuels the protagonist on a particular adventure or story: it could be the thrill of the hunt, a moral code/an innate sense of ethics, or an inner belief system.
Many crime thrillers have protagonists who are fueled by the stakes of the case; someone has been murdered, someone could be murdered again, or just the puzzle itself of how a murder was done might be enough to fuel the drive of the protagonist. For some hunters, it’s all about the chase.
Investigators like The Question, or classic heroes like Sherlock Holmes are driven by the hunt and the chase. The need to find answers and solve riddles in the deadliest game of life and death provides all the stakes they need.
What’s at stake? – In stories like this, the bad guy gets away if the hero fails, and that usually means more mayhem and destruction.
Also, you don’t have to have personal tragedy in order to have someone rise to the occasion or challenge.
The hero’s motivation should be personal, but it can be a personal sense of justice, an obligation or sense of duty, or because the hero is highly motivated to prevent other people from experiencing pain and loss. These are typically people who choose to adopt a code of ethics, a belief system, or channel their inner desires towards protecting others.
Paladins, Guardians, White Knights, Sentinels, Watchmen… there have always been particular descriptions of people that describe the ever-vigilant protectors who are called by a sense of duty mixed with righteousness to combat evil. They do it because they feel the call to stand against evil and darkness, even if it means they personally sacrifice of themselves to meet that end.
Characters like the Green Lanterns are chosen; essentially they are space paladins who take an oath and live a by a creed, sworn to uphold justice in their space sector. Paladins in most fiction are warriors of righteousness who take up the call in service of others, and are some of my favorite characters of all time.
A key aspect of most of these characters is not the desire to be a hero, but the desire to serve others.
What’s at stake? – In stories like this, evil triumphs when good men and women do nothing.
Or, you could go a completely different direction, and have the hero be very reluctant. They may be a hero not because they’ve lost anything personally, but because they are fighting for recognition or to help two opposing factions/sides/views reconcile.
Chris Claremont’s X-Men from the 70’s is a great example of a team dealing with a lot of personal problems, but typically end up being heroes because at their roots, they are idealists fighting for a better world for all, not just because they’ve suffered personal tragedy.
What’s at stake? – In stories like this, in the long term, the stakes are that if the protagonists act, the world itself may change and get better. It’s not guaranteed, but it’s worth fighting for.
I mean, if you really wanted to, you could even boil it down to a generic, “hero of justice” approach that you get out of some Manga or Anime, where the lead character does what they do just because, “it’s the right thing to do”. I’m definitely overgeneralizing this one, but I thought it might come up.
It’s a lot cornier than Paladin I described earlier because it comes from a more immature, childish place that’s more self-centered around the protagonist’s view of themselves. Unlike the Paladins/Guardian types I mentioned earlier, these characters DO want to be ‘the hero’, even if most of them don’t admit to it.
“Heroes of Justice” tend to be much more selfish; their mission is based off of an idealized sense of self and self-importance. The main difference in my book is that most ‘heroes of justice’ tend to hold onto their desires because they feel it makes them special, even though they might not admit it or be aware of it.
The Paladnis and Green Lanterns I used as an example earlier are typically called into service and are, (for the most part) not doing it for any type of glory. Heroes of justice tend to have false modesty and enjoy being the hero of the story. The trope in anime usually has the ‘hero of justice’ making speeches about their beliefs because it’s their whole personal identity and makes them feel special in comparison to others.
What’s at stake? – In stories like this, typically a hero of justice is pitted against a true ideological opposite or villain, and their battle is one of outlook, where one is proven right and the other wrong, and both have their personal identities on the line.
Ultimately, it’s up to you. These are some suggestions, but as a writer, you have to figure out what you’re passionate about and put that into your writing. Even if it’s not a love of family or personal familial stakes that drive your story, your protagonist will still need some personal fuel to light up their fire and push ahead in the story.