“Make your characters want something right away, even if it's only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”
– Kurt Vonnegut
A character who wants something is at the heart of every story. But how can you make that 'want' drive your story with energy and drama?
Question one: what does your character want?
It’s important, for a strong story, to help the reader see early on the development of a quest of some sort – without this, the reader may not sense the purpose of the things they’re being shown or told. Some people would say that, without this element, you don't really have a story.
Am I suggesting that the only type of valid story is a Lord of the Rings-style quest to reach Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring? Not at all - sometimes the quest can be very subtle, and perhaps the protagonist isn't really conscious of it. But if a reader stepped back, they should be able to answer the questions, 'What does this person want? What's driving them to do what they're doing?'
Perhaps your protagonist wants to rebuild their self-esteem. Perhaps they want to free themselves from the shackles of living up to others' crushing expectations. Perhaps they want to reach an alternative dimension to destroy the source of evil beings terrorising their world. All of these things are a quest.
Question two: what's standing in their way of getting it?
It's also important to have something standing in your character's way, preventing them from getting the thing they want. Because if they could just reach out and get that thing, where's the drama in that? Barriers can take the form of external and internal forces, and a really good story may contain both.
Perhaps your protagonist has to outwit and overcome an evil antagonist, trying to foil their plans at every turn. Perhaps there are immense logistical or practical issues. Perhaps they suffer from a crushing sense of self-doubt. There are just a few examples of barriers your protagonist might face.
Question three: what's at stake if they fail?
For high-drama stakes, there should be a consequence threatening to happen if your protagonist doesn't succeed in their quest. This consequence could be lurking over their shoulder, reminding them of why they should continue against those seemingly insurmountable barriers.
Perhaps your protagonist will be forever doomed to a life of soulless drudgery. Perhaps they've lost a loved one and may lose another if they don't overcome those evil beings.
If you feel your story may be falling a little flat, it may be worth asking yourself whether your characters are making active choices to progress through the story, or is stuff just happening to them, while they simply react? If they're not making active choices, it's hard for the story to feel like it's moving with purpose towards a goal.
Once you've decided what your character's quest will be, what's standing in their way, and what's at stake, it's worth considering how you present an event (an 'inciting incident') that sets all of this going. Bring this out clearly and strongly and give it real emotional clout, because it sets the basis for the rest of the story.
Why should we think about these things?
It's important to think about all of these factors to ensure they're coming through to your reader strongly throughout your story. There's a risk a reader might not be gripped, or might wonder where the scenes are taking them, if these factors aren't coming across.
Once you have your reader in the passenger seat and buckled up, you can take them on that pleasurable drive to wherever your characters end up. What will they see on the way?