Regardless of whether you’re a plotter or a pantser or somewhere in-between, you will–at some point–have to think about character arcs, conflict, and plot.
In my experience, you only really need to answer 2 questions in order to fuel a compelling story, and both of them have to do with character.
What is your character afraid of?
This can be as simple as heights, or spiders, or something tangible. It can be as complex as death, or abandonment, or failure. It can be a specific person. It can be themselves. It can–and should–be multiple things.
Now put them in a position where they have to confront their worst fears. They don’t have to overcome them–sometimes it’s good to let your characters cower. But forcing them to experience their fears adds tension to the story and can certainly help character growth.
*** This is most important for your MC, but I recommend exploring this for side characters, love interests, and antagonists as well. ***
What is something your character thinks they would never do?
This can be something that violates their moral code, or something that they’d never consider because it doesn’t serve their needs. Whatever it is, force your character into a situation where they have to do it anyway. I know, I know, that’s really vague and unhelpful. Let’s do examples.
- The seasoned detective has spent their whole career trying to pin the city’s top mob boss, but when said mob boss is the only witness to a gruesome crime, the two will have to work together to bring down an even bigger threat.
- A dedicated and loyal soldier is forced to betray their country when their family’s lives are threatened.
- A 400 year old vampire has vowed to never turn anyone, but when they meet their soulmate bleeding out in a back alleyway from a knife wound, that changes.
- A powerful and prideful sorcerer agrees to give up his powers in order to save someone that he has grown to care about.
There are countless other ways to interpret this question. But the point is that making your character do something that they thought they’d never do usually comes about in 2 ways: either a crisis has forced them to do the unthinkable, or their character arc changes them so dramatically that they are no longer the same person they were at the beginning of the story.
Obviously there are more questions you can ask–and the more you ask, the more material/inspiration you are likely to find–but these two feel very necessary to my own writing process, and I think are especially helpful if you’re not yet ready to answer the question, “What does my character want?”