David Mamet's new "Masterclass" is being promoted as a hot new "learn how to write" on-line class. I've watched some of Mamet's work over the years and I am indeed a fan of some of it, but I've also learned through the years that his formula doesn't work for me.
Mamet's most famous piece on writing isn't a class or a lecture, it's a memo. It's an angry letter he wrote when he was a writer and producer for The Unit, in which he tried to get across to the other writers what he wanted from them as writers.
Mamet's advice says:
we, the writers, must ask ourselves of every scene these three questions: 1) Who wants what? 2) What happens if she doesn't get it? 3) Why now?
The answers to these questions are litmus paper. Apply them, and their answer will tell you if the scene is dramatic or not. The main character must have a simple, straightforward, pressing need which impels him or her to show up in the scene.
This need is why they came. It is what the scene is about. their attempt to get this need met will lead, at the end of the scene,to failure - this is how the scene is over. It, this failure, will, then, of necessity, propel us into the next scene.
All these attempts, taken together, will, over the course of the episode, constitute the plot.
As a way of crafting a really good plot, Mamet's advice is absolutely critical. Memorize this, learn this, use this, because it's the One True Thing about making a story compelling.
Except it's missing something. Something I learned from George Lucas, back when Lucas was a better writer. Any writing class will tell you that the worst thing a character can say in a story is, "I don't know what I want." Like Mamet's advice above, the character has to have a single, compelling desire that propels them forward.
The thing is, when a character enters a story, they're entering a new world, the world of the story. As Blake Snyder writes in his own writing advice, a story starts wwhen the character finds themselves in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable situation, pushes to correct the situation, and makes the problem much, much worse (this is known as the gap). The character learns that the world they're in is really different from their expectation, and all their old tools don't work, and they have to master new ones (a'la Joseph Campbell).
What makes a character really compelling? False goals.
False goals are commonplace, but in most genres we don't talk much about them. Romance writers are familiar with false goals, although they don't call them that; romance writers talk about the mask (the role the characters say they want to play at the beginning of the story) and the essence (who the characters truly are, and how the romance strips off the mask to expose how good they'd be for one another). Star Wars: A New Hope was the first place I noticed a false goal: Luke "hated the Empire" but "wanted to join the Academy." He really just wants to get away from Tatooine (no surprise there) and become a professional pilot. He's willing to compromise his shallow moral code for a chance to fly. It isn't until the Empire makes it personal, killing his adoptive parents, that he adopts a true goal, one consistent with his moral instincts.
The story I'm working on has a character who's deeply rural and culturally fundamentalist, but also nerdy, gay, and possibly kinky. They have a lot of false goals to work through, bargains they're trying to make with God and themself and the image of their parents, as they discovers cities aren't places of terrible mayhem, being gay is compatible with a loving god, and even kink has a place in a good life if the people doing it come from a place of compassion and exploration. Watching the character wrestle with their agenda, and their demons one by one, is part of the joy. (Pixar's Rule of Writing #1: We admire a character more for their effort than for their success.)
Romance characters start with two false goals: the first is to stay "true to themselves," to the image of themselves they have at the beginning of the story (the "mask"), often an image given to them by someone else, the role they've been taught to play by parents and society. (The trope of the cultural straitjacket works best when it's well-defined, which is why historical romance works so well.) In a great romance, the second is the way they deal with the external threat, whatever it is, that is conspiring to keep them apart from each other. The climax of a romance novel is when the two characters realize they're fighting the wrong external fight, and that if they overcome the internal fight and reveal themselves fully and honestly, they'll have the power to deal with the conflict correctly.
Human beings frequently don't know what they want. It's one thing for a character to find themselves thrown into a new world, the plot of "ordinary person accidentally gets involved with aliens / mobsters / monsters / spies." It's another for a character to deliberately thrust themselves into a new world because they believe one thing about that distant, exotic, romantic place, only to discover that their original goal was wrong and came from a place of selfishness, ignorance, even cruelty.
The latter is much more interesting. The character has to reject their own baggage. Then and only then can a new and more humane goal emerge. Give your character explicit false goals, ones that show their depths. Give them opinions that the reader can accept or reject, and show how they themselves come to accept or reject them. The best conflicts are those between a character and their own sense of self. False goals are an explicit tool the writer can use to create this conflict.