We all know how this goes: you study your character carefully, writing out all of her traits, her strengths, her flaws. Then you let her loose in the story and suddenly everything gets muddled up. You have to pause for a moment and ask her again, who are you? And then you have to work out the others around her too: wait, who are all of you again? What’s your deal, and why are you acting this way? What should you all really do next?
There’s only one question to ask each of them, and then you’ll be able to work out everything else. Seriously, with this one question, it’ll all become so much easier. Ask your main character, and each other character in turn:
“What do you want?”
What’s your character’s main drive? A mission they want to accomplish? Love? Success? Revenge? Happiness? Fun? Recognition? What do they all want?
I’ve got Eva making a deal with a not-so-nice character in Sent From a Dream, and asking this one question clarified the whole process. Why would she make such a deal? What’s she getting out of it? I had to ask and remember what Eva really wants at this point in the story.
It seems so obvious, but it’s easy to forget once you get in the thick of things. Every now and then, just remind yourself. What does he want? What does she want? It’s what drives your characters forward, what causes conflict when one person’s desire crosses another’s. Keep your story focused and your characters real, simply by asking, “hey, what do you want?”