1) Who is your Main Character?
The HERO, or main character, of your story MUST be sympathetic. If the audience cares about the hero, they’ll be more invested in the outcome of the story.
Two techniques you can use to make your hero sympathetic are to give him undeserved misfortune, or show him “petting the dog.”
If your character has undeserved misfortune, he has been the victim of circumstances beyond his control. An unfaithful spouse, abandonment, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job — all of these can quickly get an audience on your hero’s side.
Showing your hero “petting the dog” means showing him being nice to animals, kids, or old people. (Conversely, if you want to quickly show your hero’s Main Antagonist as unsympathetic, show him being nasty to animals, kids or old people!)
2) What is the main character trying to accomplish?
Your hero must always be trying to accomplish a compelling goal; something he can’t turn his back on; something that if he doesn’t do it, it won’t get done, and not only will he suffer, but INNOCENT PEOPLE WILL SUFFER TOO. This point is crucial, because the suffering of the innocent is the stuff of empathy and drama.
“Make the goal compelling” is a fancy way of saying that it isn’t enough for your hero to care about what he’s trying to accomplish. The reader has to care as well.
3) Who is trying to stop the main character?
Just as your hero is committed to accomplishing his goal, you need a MAIN OPPONENT or ANTAGONIST who is committed to accomplishing the opposite goal. Ruthlessly committed. And the more ruthless, the better. Not only that, but the Main Opponent’s goal should be mutually exclusive from the hero’s goal. In that final match up between hero and villain, there can be only one winner.
A mutually exclusive, compelling goal for your hero and his opponent to knock heads over is an essential part of any good story.
4) What happens if he fails?
This is the simplest of all the four questions to answer, because there can be only one answer: death. The life and death of your hero are the only stakes you can know for sure people will care about, because by the time you get here, you should have:
. . .a sympathetic hero, who has probably. . .
. . .suffered some sort of undeserved misfortune, and. . .
. . .who is engaged in a compelling goal, against. . .
. . .a ruthlessly committed opponent.
If your story has all of the above, it’s self-evident that anyone reading it will care deeply whether the hero and the characters surrounding him live or die, because the whole purpose of questions 1-3 is to make them care!
The death the character faces should be, whenever possible, real physical death. If real death can’t be played out in your story (perhaps you’re writing a love story or you want your story to be more “family friendly”), then you must use a figurative death. But it has to be a figurative death so strong it might as well be real death.