Agent Nathan Bransford posted a blog entry recently about figuring out what your characters want, and I have to say that this is the thing that I find lacking in a lot of things I read, especially YA. Because there are so many conflicts inherent in a teenager's every day life -- school demands, and cliques, and parental demands, and Big Emotional Milestones -- sometimes what the characters actually want gets lost in the noise of the plot and doesn't come across clearly. But it's not enough for things to happen to a character--the character has to want certain things and try to make certain things happen, and then react when they do (or don't).
Since I'm at the beginning of about seven SQUILLION projects right now, I'm figuring out what motivates my characters. This always happens for me in layers, like so*:
1. The superficial motivation. When I first find a character, I already know something of what motivates him or her. That's how they come to me. But because I don't know the character very well, my first inclination of her motivation is usually very superficial. She wants to make the cheerleading squad. She wants to get out of her small town. She wants to date the hot guy she likes. This is a good start -- good enough to start writing with, anyways -- but it's not a very deep motivation.
2. The contextual motivation. As I write the early drafts, I learn stuff about my characters. Who their families are, how they do in school, what's important to them...all that stuff.** It's like when you first start to become real friends with a person and learn that she has three brothers and hates peas.
3. The connection of motivation to plot. As a revise, I discover that who my characters are affects what happens. I know, I know--it seems like it's a little bit late in the game to make that discovery, but it's actually been happening the entire time in subconscious ways (I hope); it's just at this last stage that I start thinking about whether Character X would really do such a thing, or how Character Y would actually respond if that happened. It's like a final check that the characters are acting believably, at least within the context of the story.
It's also the point where I figure out whether my characters get what they want. A simple formulation would say that if a character gets what she wants it's a happy story, and if she doesn't it's a tragedy, but it's not that simple. Because characters, like people, don't always know what they want. They think they want a boyfriend or to be on the cheerleading squad or to get an A in chemistry, but what they really want is something more ineffable and unexpressable, even to themselves. Freedom. Love. The chance to say what they feel. So sometimes a character getting what he wants can be a tragedy, and a character being denied can actually be a happy ending. It just depends.
* This isn't a description of my process, by the way. I don't know that there is such a thing as a "character motivation discovery process." This just seems to be how character motivation develops for me as I go through the writing and revision process.
** I know that some authors start by mapping all this stuff out. They create bibles of characters that spell out birthdays and astrological signs, family relationships, important events in the characters' pasts...all sorts of stuff. Then they start writing. And it would seem, for someone who places as great an emphasis on character as I do, that this would be a great thing for me to do, right? Yeah...not so much. I find if I do this first I spend a whole bunch of time playing with the characters and never get around to, you know, actually writing the story. Doing this takes some of the fun of discovery out of it for me, so I lose the need to tell the story. So I don't create character bibles until after I've gotten a draft done and I can pull what I need out of the story itself.