Was thinking about my post last night about "showing versus telling" and how brilliant Crusie, Mayer, and Berney are in unveiling the characters in their books from page 1, and it reminded me of something.
Get your characters in trouble from page 1 and then make the trouble worse.
That's what they do. But here's the thing. Instead of random trouble that could happen to anyone, Crusie, Mayer, and Berney get their characters into specifically the kind of trouble that's generated by the character's flaws. And what is really cool, is that the flaw is often just the flip side, or by-product, of what is also best in them. How cool is that? Sort of like the old Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk is split into the "Good Kirk" and the "Bad Kirk". You can't have one without the other. You can't have a good trait without the bad. A person might have a violent streak—which is bad—but if they use that to defend the weak or save someone, well, that's good. And that's the kind of thing you can build a plot around.
Those gifted writers make it seem ridiculously easy, but I can tell you. It's a b!tch to write.
It means you have to understand your character's strengths and weaknesses, and then build a story around those strengths and weaknesses. Not just launch your characters into a situation that could happen to any old character. You can't just squeeze them into a plot to suit you. The plot has to suit the character's character. ;-)
I tend to forget (and maybe others do too) that what makes a good story, and great literature, is the characters. In fact, if you look at the classics, the plots are often goofy or non-existent—certainly not always memorable. It's the characters—how they are portrayed, what they do and say—that makes a book great. Only rarely does a wonderful book pop up that has a great plot and interchangeable/forgettable characters. Because we don't read for the plot, we read for the characters. We're all hopeless voyeurs, driving by houses at night, staring in the windows the authors lit for us. We don't care so much about the houses, but we're fascinated by the characters glimpsed eating, laughing, or crying, just past the shadows of the curtains.
Good luck—it's a daunting task, but well worth the endeavor.