As Kurt Vonnegut put it: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
And Vonnegut did say every character…not just our protagonist.
Of course, though, it’s natural to focus on what our main character wants. If there’s something he really wants and we keep it out of his reach, we’re creating tension and conflict with whatever is keeping him away from his goal.
It’s also important for readers to know what our protagonist’s motivation is. What his stake in the story is.
Sometimes it’s fun to have the protagonist struggling to choose between two separate things that he really wants….things that might seem mutually exclusive. But have them both be extremely important to the character. Obviously, this creates even more tension.
What if our protagonist’s goal and what he wants changes during the course of the story? What happens then?
But we also have antagonists to work with. And if her goal is opposite from our protagonist’s, then we’re setting them up for battle.
What about those characters who want the same thing that our protagonist wants…but maybe they’re inept in some way or accidentally bumble through and mess things up. Unintentionally.
There are also characters who don’t share the same goals as our protagonist, but they aren’t antagonists on a huge scale. Maybe they’re just holding back our protagonist in some way because their goals don’t align completely with his. (Like our protagonist’s boss. Our protagonist wants to be having adventures in Maui, but his boss wants him at his desk job.)
Does your character want something on an epic scale or a smaller one? Mine usually just want to put killers behind bars. :)