This post is the first in a series on character development.
I once read somewhere that a writer should "make their characters want something, even if it's just a glass of water, and your readers will relate to them."
While this is entirely true, and sometimes giving your characters a simple desire like breakfast (Bilbo Baggins) as opposed to changing the universe for the good of humankind, is more relatable, I would add this: creating determination and drive in a character, focused on achieving their goals, makes them more relatable and memorable.
I say, write passionate characters! Write characters who care about what they want and for what they strive for, and have them reach for it.
Not all characters with such drive, though, have to be leaders. I don't know anyone who has read Lord of the Rings and didn't admire Sam Gamgee. Sam has a simple but noble purpose: he wants to help his friend, and to be a friend, putting aside his hopes for a peaceful, domestic life in the Shire, and instead helping Frodo reach his own goal of saving Middle Earth. Not only does he make this personal sacrifice, but he never gives up.
Liesel Meminger in The Book Thief is determined to read books. Any books. At first, this is out of self-interest and loneliness, but it soon becomes an obsession, as she wants to do something, anything, for her sickly friend Max. Something so commonplace becomes something personally important. Because Liesel, eager, spirited, and committed, goes far out of her way for the books, we, the readers, relate to her struggle and want her to find them.
Sometimes, having a group of characters with the same goal is even better, because it bonds them and amplifies their cause, such as the aforementioned Barricade Boys of Les Mis and their political dreams, or the Gladers in The Maze Runner and their desperation to leave the Maze.
To give a character such drive, you must give them something that they want. It can be liberty, it could be a dog, it could be a glimpse of the stars. It should be personal. Personal desires hit closer to home with readers than great and lofty goals for the universe. And then you must make your characters fight for it.
What a character wants doesn't have to be central to the plot, though it can be a part of it. Take Hugo's notebook in The Invention of Hugo Cabret, or Ender's desire to write his sister Valentine in Ender's Game. Both characters learn they have to work to gain their wishes, Hugo by sweeping floors, and Ender by competing in Battle School.
Write characters with determination, and those ever-elusive stakes will arise on their own. Liesel wants
to find books, but these books condemned by the Nazi government and she must keep them hidden for the sake of her family's safety. Enjolras wants to start a revolution, but if it is unsuccessful, it will be at the cost of his friends' lives. Ender wants to contact his sister, but any leaked information from Battle
School could jeopardize the institution's defense program. The Gladers want to get out of the Maze and rediscover their past, but to do so puts them, one by one, at risk of death, narrowing everyone's chance of survival. But if a character does not have personal wants and dreams, stakes won't arise, because they will not care about "bad things happening" if it doesn't affect them or what they want (especially this) directly. And if the character doesn't care, neither will the readers.
What do your characters want, and how do they fight for it?