I am juggling two pieces of writing right now: my current novel revisions and a short story I'm revising from school. In both I'm wrestling with the same question. What does my character want?
Kurt Vonnegut once said: "...make [your] characters want something right away - even if it's only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time."
It's true that even in the shortest pieces, a character needs motivation. Motivation is what leads to conflict.
I never stopped to think about what my characters want. I know inherently they want something. I sometimes even think I know what it is they want; but when I stop to name it, to define what it is my characters are working towards or secretly desiring, I realize that what I think it is is not always what the story is driving.
For example, the short story I'm working on is about a woman recently discharged from the Army trying to find her way in the civilian world. What I think she wants is to be back in the Army. What the story has showed her wanting is to be back in the war she just left.
While the two wants may seem interchangeable, they are absolutely two different wants, and if she just wants the security and family of the Army, that makes her an entirely different person than if she wants to be in war.
So I either need to change the character's personality or I need to change the focus of the plot.
In my novel, the overall want is easier. She wants a family, and a place to belong. But since it's a longer piece of work, there is the need in each scene to have her wanting something - the desire to go unseen, the desire to get out of the restaurant and the sticky conversation, the desire to connect with her brother at some level. Each time I open a scene, I'm asking myself now, "What does she want here?"
Ray Bradbury says, "My characters write my stories for me. They tell me what they want, and I tell them to go get it, and I follow as they run, working at my typing as they rush to their destiny."
Stephen Koch says, "There's a story inside every motive, because wanting something invariably has a result, some sort of outcome. That result may be nothing more than pure frustration - but then frustration will have some outcome. In any case, the wish will lead to a result, and therein lies, always, some sort of tale, a path to narrative, and a route to the end."
What is it your character want, and is the action motivated by that?