Characters need goals. This seems obvious, but it’s a weakness I often find in early drafts (including my own): characters wander around randomly or things happen to them but they never take action themselves.
Characters need large goals. Meaty goals that last the length of a book. These goals don’t have to be complicated. Often they are as simple as defeating the bad guy or staying alive. (Both usually.)
For a reader to invest in the outcome of a story, there needs to be something at stake, something bad that will happen or be lost if the goal isn’t achieved. What happens if the bad guy isn’t defeated? Does the world end? Do two countries go to war? Or is it something smaller, but deeply personal, for example the loss of a job/spouse/child/friend? (Note the loss can be death or something like the dissolution of a marriage.) Ask yourself if you can make the stakes higher.
Ideally, your book should have both public and private stakes. Often at the beginning of the story, the character may not know the full extent of the problem. Stakes may start small and personal, then get bigger. For example at the beginning of Spiderman: Far From Home Peter Parker’s goal is to date MJ. This remains his personal goal, but he’s quickly drawn into saving his classmates and the world from a monster.
Once your character has a concrete goal, they need to start taking steps to achieve it. Often this means breaking their goal down into little steps. In Spiderman: Far From Home Peter’s first small goal is to sit with MJ on the plane.
Characters need a goal in every scene—and the sooner you give them a goal the better. That way the reader immediately begins to wonder: will they achieve their goal or not.
This can be tricky when you as the author have a reason for the scene that is inobvious to the reader. Let’s say you need your character to have a conversation with the curmudgeon down the hall in order to drop in a clue that means nothing now, but will be important later. But your character has no reason to speak to the curmudgeon. How do you keep your reader from being bored and impatient during a random encounter in the hallway? By giving your character a small goal such as, don’t lose his temper or convince curmudgeon to feed her cat while she’s off on an adventure.
Sometimes characters achieve their goals and move onto the next step. Sometimes they fail and have to try again or set new goals. Either way, the hero’s course should become harder and harder as the novel accelerates towards the climax.