Writers In The Storm welcomes back Kara Lennox, a.k.a. Karen Leabo for some more plot-fixing magic. Kara is an award-winning, bestselling author of more than sixty novels of romance and romantic suspense for Harlequin and Random House. AND she’s a 2012 DOUBLE RITA Finalist!
Problem #4: A lack of clear-cut goals for your characters
In a mystery, the protagonist's goals are usually pretty easy to figure out: Solve the mystery. Catch the bad guy. Keep from getting killed. Maybe not in that order.
In a fantasy, there is usually some quest. (Lord of the Rings--retrieve the ring and toss it into Mt. Doom)
In romance, however, figuring out the goals of your main characters is a bit trickier, because usually, at the beginning they don't want love. Falling in love is the last thing on their minds, and would in fact interfere with their plans. So they have to have some other goal. They have to want something, and they have to want it passionately. This is how you create conflict--someone wants something, but something (often their future love) is in the way.
Another reason romance is tricky is because you usually have two main characters with equal or almost equal weight in the story, so you have to give each of them a goal, and the goals should conflict with one another. I'm sure you've heard the old Nora Roberts chestnut of advice: "If the hero is an arson investigator, the heroine better be an arsonist." Or something like that.
In a romance, both goals should be sympathetic. The reader should be able to understand why each of them wants what they want, which means you must motivate those goals.
The goals should be primal -- something anyone from any culture can understand. If a heroine wants to keep her child, that's primal. If a hero wants to prove himself to his demanding father, that's primal. Even wanting a pile of money relates to survival. Make the goal personal, really important, a matter of life and death if at all possible.
Here is an example from a paranormal I'm currently working on: A lonely woman who wants a family accidentally comes into possession of a stolen dragon egg. When it hatches, she and the baby dragon form a mystical bond--she isn't going to give it up easily. Along comes the hero, whose mission is to reclaim the baby dragon and return it to his queen. If he fails, he faces death. Hero's and heroine's goals are diametrically opposed (one of them has to lose) and, I hope, well motivated.
As the characters grow and change, their goals can change, too. Think of the Anne Hathaway character in The Devil Wears Prada. At first, she just wants to be a journalist. She takes the job at the fashion magazine because she believes it will open doors for her. Her goal is to survive a year, and she thinks fashion is pretentious and all her coworkers shallow. Eventually, though, she realizes that to succeed at this job, she must fit in, and she sets out to dress and act the part and to not just survive, but excel. She succeeds at this all too well--at the expense of her romance and her co-worker's career. When she realizes what she is becoming and where she is headed, she changes back to her original goal of wanting to be a writer and she turns her back on fashion, older and wiser.
In ONE FOR THE MONEY, Stephanie Plum at first just wants a paying job so she can get her repo'd car back. Then she wants to bring in Joe Morelli--at first, strictly for the bounty, then, to prove she can best him. THEN ... after she learns a few things, she also wants to find and catch the real murderer.
However, in my current WIP, from the very beginning the heroine wants to catch a murderer so she can earn the respect of her colleagues, and in the last scene she has solved the mystery and is basking in the admiration of her co-workers.
Remember, conflict on every page. No conflict without desires. Make your characters want stuff. The villain has to want stuff. Secondary characters have to want stuff.
Look at every main character in your story. Identify what they want. Does this change as they grow? (It doesn't have to, but often the character, as he or she grows, either learns to accept that they might have to compromise, or discovers what they want isn't what they need.)