So, now that we know characters are what makes the story, what makes the character?
There's a lot to the execution of a good character. I'm not going to pretend that I know everything about it, but there are two questions that the writer has to answer in order to make a reader care:
Who Are You? and What do you want?
Bonus points to all those having J. Michael Straczynski flashbacks right now. Let's use his magnificent Space Opera type epic Babylon 5 for an example. He used this technique masterfully, and was clever enough to put the questions right out there for the audience, with the angel placeholders the Vorlons asking the self-defining question Who Are You? and the demon placeholders the Shadows asking the selfish question What do you want? The heroes had to define whether they were heroes or not, making hard choices about the Who Are You, and the characters with developed redemption arcs had to grapple with the concept of What Do You Want, and all of the glorious and messy consequences of getting exactly what they asked for.
In Avatar: The Last Airbender, when Prince Zuko was about to go on the Heel Face Revolving Door (betraying both sides so often that we had to wonder "who is he with this week?"), his mentor says outright "You're going to have to start asking yourself the big questionswho are you, and what do you want?" And then Zuko did what Zuko did best, which was angst about it. He even had trippy fever dreams about the answers to this question. More development on this further down.
You see, the questions really boil down a lot of the philosophical and existential questions that people have about realizing potential and becoming contributing members of society. Hahaha. That's just the surface of it, and a really kitch* way of explaining things.
Take the first question: Who Are You? What is every "finding yourself" story going to answer? It's going to answer freaking Who Are You?. A lot of times they'll work in a scene where the hero/ine out right soliloquizes Who Am I? Disney is wonderful about defining this question for us in the form of song"When will my reflection show who I am inside?" Honey, when you start cross dressing, join the army, kill some Huns, and otherwise fulfill the plot of the moviethat's when your reflection will show who you are inside. "There must be more than this provincial life!" Oh, there is, and he is a rich jerk banking on Stockholm Syndrome, Belle. (When you look at Disney sarcastically, so much opens up for reinterpretation.)
When answering the question of Who Are You? the writer is taking on the concept of Character Arc. How is the character going to change during the course of the story? Is the pageboy going to become the greatest philandering King of England ever? Who is your character at the beginning, and who is he at the end? Not all characters have a dynamic arc. Merlin didn't change too much. Gandalf did, but still fit the same old "cool, wise, mystic old guy" spot as he did before his big heroic sacrifice. Frodo went through a lot, but we always knew who he wasthe selfless kid who was willing to endure all kinds of danger because It Was the Right Thing to Do. Back to Avatar, the hero Aang's Who Are You? is right in the title (in the American release). He's the big hero. He's the guy who has to put an end to all the junk that's gone wrong over the past hundred years. No pressure. But Zuko, the angsty dishonored prince of the Evil Empire has to find his own way to redemption through a twisting maze of Right, Wrong, Honorable/Dishonorable, and Lies. He keeps betraying people until he figures out which side is the right one. He had to overcome years of history and royal expectations to figure out who he was for himself.
that one's pretty existential and heavy. You can have a simple Who Am I? with characters who aren't going to undergo much development. You can have some pretty cool Who Am I?s who don't need much development, because they've already found themselves before the story started. A lot of mentors get this kind of attitude.
Now that we know that Who Are You? deals with Identity, let's move on to Motivation. Motivation is tied to What Do You Want?
Without conflict there is no story. Conflict can come in many formsthe stuff that keeps the hero from his romantic interest, from his objective, from his mission. Whatever he is being kept from is what he wants. In Eragon the hero wants to free the known world from the tyranny of the Evil Empire. Same goes for Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. In The Hunger Games the heroine wants mainly to survive, but she also wants to end the oppression of the Evil Empire. (Note that I am one person writing this, so if only one vein of examples come to me, only one vein of examples come to me. Please feel free to donate examples.) In romance novels the primary conflict is often a simple (or heinously complicated) Will They or Won't They (they will, fyi). Your hero needs to strive for something, or your reader can't root for anything to happen, except a speedy end to the novel/movie. In just about every caper story, What They Want is a thing. We read for the hijinks, but it's a device driven plot.
For those like me who grew up with Pokémon, there were many wonders of "If you hate him that much, why do you follow him around?" as far as Ash and Misty were concerned. Sorry, but a romantic subplot wasn't fleshed out enough to make it a viable explanation. Since Who Are You? doesn't answer, does What Do You Want? What did Ash want? He wanted to master all the Pokémon stuff. That's pretty much it. What did Misty want? I don't freaking know. I remember she was one of the cooler females on the cast, but then again she was the female lead. But let's count off the recurring females who actually did stuffMisty, Jessie, Nurse Joy, and Officer Jenny. What did Jessie want? Overall she wanted to be rich and famous with a life of luxury and leisure. Day to day she wanted to steal the freaking Pikachu and get some recognition from her boss. Officer Jenny wanted to uphold the law. A few of her quirkier incarnations hadget this other wants. Nurse Joy brought Pikachu back from the dead more times than 4Kids would ever let American children realize (that's a joke, as far as I know), and she was a prime one for having other interests. But what the heck did Misty want? To get the little eggshell thingie to do something for once? She obviously didn't want a man, because she left every potential match behind (even the one with Gary-Stu levels of perfection). Apparently she didn't want to have a Gym of her own, and the whole "I want to be recognized as my own person" plot was tapped out pretty early. What did she want? I don't know! If she did have any honest kind of motivation (friendship?) it wasn't active enough or independent enough to be memorable. Her motivations were episodic, so I connected a bit on a daily basis when I was a kid, but the story didn't grow up with me.
One story that did grow up with me was Labyrinth. We had it on VHS, and it was my Sick Day Movie. (Do kids still have those? The special movie that you always watched on the day you were home sick from school?) I have some friends who didn't grow up with that movie, and they're weirded out by what they saw of it. I don't blame them. But when I was a kid, I thought Sarah was one of the coolest heroines ever. As a child, my view of the infamous King Jareth was
simplistic. I thought he was cool, and kind of romantic giving Sarah that amazing dress and singing and stuff. But he was the bad guy, and he was going to lose! You just go to the searchbar and see what comes up for "Jareth and Sarah"I'm not the only one the movie grew up for. So, in this skewed fairy tale, what's our motivation? What does Jareth want? Oh, there's conjecture about that
But the main lines people think along are Duty and Love. "Everything I've done I've done for you" indeed, Mr. Goblin King. What does Sarah want? She wants to Slay the Dragon and Save the Innocent! She wants to live her childhood fairytales in the role of the heroine and win (and once she's done that, she grows up
mostly). In the ballroom scene she wants to find her prince, and then she realizes that's not what she wants at all. She wants friends, and gets them. And, of course, she wants love
but that's another story. That's a separate story from the Coming of Age story of a sister trying to rescue her brother from the glittery king of the Goblins. You knew right from the beginning what she wanted, and you always had to wonder just what Jareth's ulterior motives were
I've failed at these things before. I tried to plot with such detail so far in advance to know my characters completely, that with a few main characters I completely left out What Do You Want, and it was no wonder that I had trouble writing such passive heroes. Other times I didn't know my characters, so the story stagnated even with great motivation. If I didn't know what they wanted or who they were, there wasn't much incentive to figure out more about them.
Give your character motivation and identity, or your reader can't connect. To make sure your character has these two basic features, ask your character the questions Who Are You? and What Do You Want?
You'll be surprised with what a character can think of to answer with.
*Kitch: A reference to art that is so mass-produced, watered down, and devalued over time to the point where it is so trite that it is only fit to be put on key-chains.