Do you understand your characters? Do you know what your character’s self-concept is? Can you state it in one phrase?
If the answer to these questions isn’t yes, then you don’t know your characters well enough to write their stories.
You need to be able to identify your characters’ self-concept so that you can identify their challenges. For instance, in the first book of the Harry Potter series, Harry believes himself to be an ordinary little boy. His challenge, therefore, is finding out that he isn’t ordinary. How he meets this challenge is the basis of the story for the first book.
When you write up your character’s description (you do develop a character synopsis, right?), one of the first things you should be revealing is their self-concept. For instance, the main character of my book, The Past Rekindled (the first book in my Tran’zr series), is a young woman named, Terra McGinley. The first line of her description is: Self-sufficient, independent woman trying to establish her own company. That’s how she thinks of herself, that’s her self-concept.
So, what hurdles does she need to face that would challenge that self-concept? The first hurdle I gave her was the rejection of her business proposal to a large bio firm. But that wasn’t enough. I needed another challenge. Therefore, I added someone from her past. This person creates an emotional roadblock to her current goals while also challenging her self-concept. But just to be sure, I also added another layer, something she feels she needs to keep secret because it clashes with her own self-concept and with how most people view reality (she’s a tran’zr — she transitions people when they die). Now I have a story; the story is how she handles these challenges.
Another example is from my fantasy series, Darkwind of Danaria. My leading male character, Joelnar, sees himself as a failure and a coward, yet still an honorable man. Because of that self-concept, every task I gave him forced him to contradict the first part of that self-evaluation. To maintain his honor, he had to return to the place of his greatest fear. Doing that and keeping his charge alive, meant he was no longer a failure or a coward. But which was stronger, his honor or his fear?
That’s the story. That’s what the reader wants to know, too. Will he be able to overcome his fears and do what’s being asked of him, or will he end up as the man he thinks he is?
That’s how you build your story. Create a character. Determine their self-concept, and then challenge that self-concept at every turn. Add more and more challenges until the story practically writes itself.
Try one for yourself: Dottie Matthews: stubborn, technophobe, but excellent librarian. 40-ish, widowed for 2 years, working in a small library. She loves dogs and has one unmarried daughter.
What challenges would you give Dottie? How about having the library switch to computer-based book files. How does our technophobe deal with that, and how does it affect her view of herself (excellent librarian)? Maybe she decides to take classes where she meets someone handsome/mysterious/scary?
To add another layer, perhaps her daughter creates an online dating profile for Dottie. How does Dottie, the technophobe, deal with that? Does she meet someone who forces her to overcome her fear of technology in order to save her and her daughter’s lives? Or does she meet someone as inept with technology as herself who is only pretending to know what he’s doing?
Your story could be romantic, horrific, or even comedic depending on how you think Dottie might react to each situation. The key, though, is that the audience finds something relatable about Dottie and the situations she finds herself in and so cares about what happens to her. And the way to make Dottie (or any of your characters) relatable is to ensure that you (the author) understand what each character’s self-concept is. If you understand your characters, then so will your audience; and understanding the character is key to your readers’ accepting and relating to that character.