Nothing drives a story like a determined character. But this is one of those things that’s easier to say than it is to actually incorporate into writing.
I thought I understood what all these writerly types meant when they said to make a “strong, motivated” character. In my head, this meant that I was supposed to craft an arrow-shooting, take-no-prisoners bad-ass character. That’s strong, right?
I mean, yes, but that’s not the key of it. Katniss is a great main character, but it’s not her bow that makes her strong. It’s the fact that she has something incredibly compelling to fight for—her sister, who she’d do anything to save.
In many of my early stories, a lot of Big Exciting Plot Events happen. And my main character tends to be stuck right in the middle of them. But there’s a difference between a character that plot just happens to and a character who acts as a plot catalyst. All your various characters should have things driving them. They should have burning, compelling, unstoppable needs that cause them to behave in a certain way. This behavior should move the plot forward.
Real people have more depth than that though, right? Of course! To make a character—and a story—even more compelling, you need external motivations and conflicts (the surface forces driving your character) as well as internal motivations and conflicts. If you want to make it extra interesting, try to make these two motivations oppose each other.
For an example of a story where this is done really, really well, let’s examine the wonderful (and highly recommended!) online mini-series, Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog.
So what’s Dr. Horrible’s external motivation? Well, he wants to be part of the Evil League of Evil and be a super terrible super villain. That in and of itself would make an interesting story. But it’s Dr. Horrible’s internal motivation that makes him such a complex (and sympathetic) protagonist.
For as long as he’s been in love with Penny, he’s never had the nerve to approach her. All he really wants is her love and admiration, but in his mind, the way to gain her respect is to be important and strong and tough. Though the viewer sees that Penny wouldn’t love a super villain, Dr. Horrible is convinced that the actualization of his external goal will bring him his internal goal.
All throughout, the viewer knows that Dr. Horrible can’t achieve both of his motivations. We begin to hope that he’ll cast off his evil ways and choose to impress Penny with his compassion instead. In the end, we get the opposite, which is what makes the story so bittersweet—though Dr. Horrible is the super terrible super villain he always hoped to be, it cost him the life of the woman he loved. And in the end, we see that he’s regretful and realizes that he made the wrong choice.
See how much tension you can create when you pit a character’s deepest desires against each other? Try it out with your main character—how could they possibly want two opposite things at the same time? How will they only manage to choose one?