The most compelling part of any story – even more so than a good plot – is character. While plot can be imagined as the track by which a story moves from a to z, character is the engine of a story that takes the reader over every dip and bend and turn of the tale.
Characters are more interesting when they read like real people – flawed and incomplete in some ways, whole and integrated into structures, lives, on the other. I’ve always had a hard time letting my characters get into trouble. I have always felt so closely tied to them that it was painful for me when they were horrible to others, or screwed up catastrophically. Thankfully, I’ve been getting over this proclivity in recent years; the more I let my characters stray the more exciting the story becomes.
But the main question we writers need to ask is this: what does my character want?
What makes Joe get up in the morning? Why does John put up with his boring office job? What does Susan long for more than anything else, and why is she on a suicidal mission to kill her godlike father?
In answering these questions for yourself you end up with complex, living and breathing characters. Each bump and twist in the rocky path between the covers of your book will inevitably reveal more about your character, because what the character wants will define how she will react to the world around her.
It’s not necessarily that your characters need to follow their heart’s desires. Sometimes a story is about how a character denies what they really want in life. Maybe they don’t even know what it is they want. But it’s in the exploration of that space – as when two characters with complex desires intersect – that the true alchemy of storytelling occurs, transforming words into life.