Every story is about a single character trying to solve a problem. In his book “The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells” author Ben Bova states one fundamental principle of creating a character. To make a compelling character, you need your character to fight against him or herself. Ben Bova offers a formula that he calls Emotion vs. Emotion. That means you give your character two conflicting emotions so your hero not only has to overcome physical obstacles (which are actually boring), but also overcome internal conflict (which is far more interesting).
For example, Sarah Connor in “Terminator 2” has to overcome the twin emotions of wanting to kill the SkyNet inventor to knowing killing is wrong. The hero in “Terminator 2,” the good Terminator, has the same conflicting emotional battles of wanting to kill but being told not to kill. By placing every major character within the same emotional conflict (wanting to kill but knowing killing is wrong), the story’s theme becomes much stronger.
More importantly, the hero’s internal emotional battle is far more interesting than endless physical battles. In “Terminator 3,” the conflict is mostly external so it’s an endless and meaningless parade of battles that grow old after a while. In “Terminator 2,” the conflict is both physical and internal, which makes the external battles far more interesting and meaningful.
In “Star Wars,” Luke isn’t just dealing with physical battles but also overcoming his timid nature. In the beginning, he’s afraid to leave his uncle’s farm even though he wants to. Later in the Death Star he takes charge and rushes to rescue Princess Leia. Seeing a character wrestle with conflicting emotions spurs change and change is what makes the character and the story interesting.
The two conflicting emotions stem from the problems from the past and the problems of the present. In “Terminator 2,” the hero (the good Terminator) has past programming designed to make him kill. However to succeed in the present, he needs to handle the new emotion which is to not kill. The internal conflict within the character is nothing more than the character wrestling with the past that doesn’t quite match up with the present.
In “Thelma and Louise,” Louise’s past has made her fearful of Texas and angry at rapists. When she’s faced with the present of a man almost raping Thelma, she snaps and kills him. Then when they run, she refuses to cut through Texas because of her past again. The past is always intruding into the present, causing problems for the character until the character changes and deals with the past.
In “Avatar,” the hero has to deal with his past of being paralyzed. In the present, he has the freedom of walking within an avatar body. The conflict comes from his choices. If he cooperates with the villain, he’ll be rewarded by having enough money to get an operation so he won’t be paralyzed any more. If he fights the villain, he’ll risk never being allowed to walk again on his own or in the avatar body. The dilemma makes the story interesting.
So if your story feels flat and lifeless, go back to your hero and make sure he or she has conflicting emotions where the emotions stem from the past and the present. Then make sure the hero chooses the “right” emotion to demonstrate change. When your hero comes across as a real person who battles internal conflict and emerges victorious through overcoming external obstacles, your story will be far more satisfying than seeing a bunch of explosions and gunfire that ultimately means nothing.