Story is About How a Character Changes
At its core, story is about how a character changes.
The character is not the same person at the end of the story that they were in the beginning. They have worked to conquer a flaw, they have overcome a fear, they have reconciled a misbelief - they have learned something new. They are now better than they were before, or, in some instances, worse off. Regardless of how the character ends up, they must change - this is what readers read story for - to connect to experiences they are either experiencing themselves, or to explore an experience through the life of a character.
Readers want to root for the character's they read about. They want to see how the character struggles to overcome internal and external forces to finally achieve their goal at the end. The struggle a character endures and fights to overcome is what creates a satisfying story.
The Character Wants Something
The character should want something and they should want it more than anything in the world.
The want, or internal goal, is what motivates the character and will need to be strong enough to take the character from the opening of the story to the end of the story. In other words, it can’t be something that can be achieved easily or resolved within the first few chapters. Achieving this goal will be challenged by internal and external forces. Internal forces come into play as their flaw, fear, or misbelief. External forces will be the antagonist, nature, technology, etc.
Examples of a character's internal goal might be:
To be an airline pilot
To win a competition
To open a business
They want love
They want success
They want to feel important
They want to go on an adventure
They want revenge
They want to clear their name
They want respect
The want (or internal goal) can be just about anything, as long as it is something the protagonist can pursue through the entire story.
The Character's Flaw, Fear, or Misbelief
The character will have a flaw, a fear, or a misbelief that trips them up as they pursue what they want (internal goal).
The flaw, fear, or misbelief is directly related to how the character will change. It is the internal force that gets in their way and prevents them from easily achieving their internal goal. It helps establish the character’s “normal” at the beginning of the story and forms the path they’ll take to change by the end. The character doesn't feel satisfied in the opening of the story because they don't have what they "want" - this is how it helps establish the character's normal. Finding the right flaw, fear, or misbelief is important to define your character's internal journey.
Examples of a flaw, fear, or misbelief might be: not believing in oneself, not having courage, being a perfectionist, vices (alcoholism, drugs, food, etc.), pushing people away, a phobia, etc.
Plot Forces a Character to Change
Plot is the tool writers use to shape how the character will struggle to reach their internal goal (want) and overcome their flaw, fear, or misbelief by the end.
Plot is the tool that forces a character to change. Plot is not what the story is about. It's a tool. The plot should be crafted in a way that will force a change in the character. It should test the character as they go after their want. It should create obstacles the character must overcome as they pursue their internal and external goals. It should force the character to make hard decisions, and based on the character's flaw, fear, or misbelief, they will make bad decisions until they learn and finally get it right.
This means the plot is based on what the character’s internal goal is and how their fear, flaw, or misbelief will challenge them as they pursue it.
For example, if a character wants success, the plot should revolve around the character searching for success and failing at it until they overcome their flaw, fear, or misbelief. A plot revolving around success can come in many different forms. Perhaps the protagonist is vying for a CEO job. Perhaps success means they want to make a million dollars, or they want to plant a garden and have a bountiful harvest at the end.
Putting it All Together
The character's want (or internal goal) and their fear, flaw, or misbelief are the elements needed to devise a strong character arc.
The plot is a tool used to help craft the challenges the character will face while they pursue their internal goal.
This is why many writers plot out the character's internal goal and fear, flaw, or misbelief before deciding how the plot will play out, because the plot is not the story, the character's journey is the story.
If you've got an amazing plot idea, but haven't crafted the character's arc, use reverse engineering to devise the character's internal goal and their fear, flaw, or misbelief based on the challenges you've created in the plot. This may be a bit trickier to do if you've already started writing. You may need to do major revisions to make it work.
It bears repeating that readers want to root for a protagonist who struggles to overcome the internal (and external) challenges standing in their way until they finally learn, are enlightened, or overcome a fear, and can achieve their internal goal (and thus their external goal). This is what story is all about.
Need help with Story Structure and Plotting? See my Story - 4-Week Coaching Package to nail down your story structure, shape your story's world, and create compelling characters.