A major component—if not the most important component—of a good plot is the movement toward some goal on the part of your protagonist. He or she should have a clearly defined objective that the whole action of the story supports and which is either fulfilled or denied in the end. However, to make the story compelling, your job as the teller of your tale is to frustrate your main character’s goal on every page.
Say, for example, that your main character, whom we’ll call Panthea, aims to live a quiet life as an anchorite. This seems a simple enough goal: all she has to do is venture out into the wilderness with a couple of goats and chickens, build a hut by a stream, and get to the business of being a hermit.
Very nice, but it doesn’t make for fascinating reading.
Ask yourself, “What can possibly get in the way of Panthea’s dream?” Well, I can think of a half dozen obstacles. What if she is betrothed at an early age and must find a way to escape the proposed marriage? What if she comes from a privileged family and has no basic survival skills? What if the bishop of her diocese opposes her plans on the grounds that she is female? What if all of the land surrounding her hometown belongs to the king, and she can’t live there except on pain of death? What if, once she finally gets her hut by a stream, other people won’t leave her alone? In just those few potential obstacles to Panthea’s dream, you have the outlines of an entire book.
So as the director of your character’s life, aim to get in the way of his or her dreams. Be merciless – make your character work for his dreams.