Who Are You?
Your characters, especially your main character, are the most important elements in your story. You can get away with sloppy writing and a boring plot if your readers love your characters and will keep reading to see what happens to them.
Additionally, the direction the plot takes is a result of your character. How they react in a given situation will depend on their personality and virtues, fears and dreams. Do they run and hide? Investigate and fight? Their personality and background will determine this.
And yet, there are certainly circumstances (and it’s a great idea to throw one of these into your book) when your character won’t act how we expect, e. g. a mom protecting her children, or a normally calm person blowing up because they’ve hit their last straw. And at the end of the book you want your character to have grown and changed as a result of everything she’s been through. So we would expect them to meet the same set of challenges in a different way at the end of the book than at the beginning.
What Do You Want?
This is two-fold. One, what does your hero think he wants? This is the obvious, surface goal. He wants a job, he wants to solve a mystery, etc. This is often referred to as the external goal. But deep down, what do they really want? This is often referred to as the internal goal. To be loved, accepted, have a family, repair a wound from childhood, be brave, etc.
Now, the fun part is their external goal should force them to deal with an obstacle or conflict that makes them confront their internal fear. You really want to put the screws on them. What would they consider to be the worst thing to possibly happen to them? What would they hate to sacrifice? These are all things they need to do to grow and find happiness (achieve their internal goal) but at the time, it looks like just the opposite to the heroine. It looks like they are going to lose everything.
Where Are We Going?
This becomes more clear with an actual example. I’ll use my historical novel, The Road Home (Tandem Services Press, April 2016), as an example. At the beginning of the story, Elizabeth is returning to town to marry Thomas who proposed to her before she left to care for her ailing grandfather. When she arrives, she discovers is that Thomas is dead from a logging accident. Through the grieving process, she realizes she wanted to marry Thomas because he would confer respectability on her through their marriage. So at the beginning of the story her external goal is to marry Thomas. Then, as her past crops up, her goal is to keep anyone from finding out about it. External goals do, and probably should, change.
Internally, her goal is to be loved and accepted by the town. This comes directly from a wound she suffered growing up. This wound is resurfacing along with her past, and she is trying to hide all of it from everyone.
Her conflict: Externally, her first conflict is that Thomas is dead, so she can’t marry him. Pretty good obstacle there. But as her goal changes to keeping people from finding out her past, she starts dealing with a bunch of obstacles. Internally, she’s conflicted with telling those closest to her the truth about her past. It would bring her closer to them, keep her from having to lie to them, and help her solve the issue from her past. But she is deathly afraid they will reject her, which happened in the past the last time she confessed something.
Her motivation: Originally, her external motivation in marrying Thomas is because they have a good friendship and would make a good match. We know now that her internal motivation was to gain acceptance. But when her goals change to keeping her past hidden, the external and internal motivations come close together. Externally, she’s keeping something a secret so no one will know about it, ostensibly to protect someone else. But really, her internal motivation, is to protect herself from rejection.
You see this a lot in books and movies. Someone appears to be motivated by money or fame or whatever, but we really know it’s revenge or to prove something. A good example: The movie Pretty Woman. Richard Gere plays a corporate guy who takes over companies and then sells them off piece by piece. At first it just looks like this is how he makes his money. Until he confesses to Julia Roberts that the first company he did this to was his father’s. Now, we know he’s doing it to get back at his father.
You Thought What?
One way to help tie the external and internal motivations into one big knot is to ask, what is the error in their thinking? Elizabeth thinks no one will accept her if they know about her past. That’s her error in thinking. The only way she can get her ultimate goal of acceptance is for someone to know about her past and accept her anyway.
Also, remember the internal conflict is something within the heroine regardless of the storyline. This is her own issue to deal with. Now the story line (mystery, suspense, or romance) creates a situation where the heroine has to choose to change. In the example, Elizabeth decides at the end she loves Josh enough that she has to be completely honest with him. She risks his rejection, but only after he has proved his loyalty and trustworthiness to her. She comes to the point where she has to choose to keep her past a secret or to let go of it and risk loving Josh.
If you can nail down these three aspects for each of your main characters (do it for your villain too to make him multidimensional) you will have emotionally powerful characters your readers can identify with and won’t want to stop reading about.