A recent Facebook discussion on my wall led one of my FB friends Leslie Guccione, an author of 30 books, to blog about the importance of totally knowing your character and setting.
I have often thought how stories are built from the inside out. Appropriately, her blog on character is named, "Know Your Characters Inside and Out." She listed a variety of questions writers should ask about their character. This list is similar to an handout that is in Teaching the Story which you can download here.
I hope you'll read her entire blog, but here is her ending advice:
Whether your character works against the background you’ve devised or reflects it in stereotypical detail, you’ve provided a solid frame on which to weave voice, behavior, attitude and goals as you hook your reader with their tale you’re telling.
By the way, I highly recommend Donald Maass' book, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. His exercises are probing and will make you get to know your character in such a way that you can portray him or her authentically.
Part II: SettingOn Leslie's blog about setting, "Your Character's Physical World," she uses two fantasy books to demonstrate the importance of creating extensive, believable worlds for characters to live in. She lists several aspects of a fictional world that the writer must create. You can also download my handout, "Set the Scene" or "Create an Imaginary World" to help you begin this brainstorming process.
Leslie summarizes that blog with, "Your goal is to breathe life into every individual & create atmosphere for every setting. You have to take your readers there. And they have to want to stay."
I found Richard Russo's article, "Location, Location, Location: Depicting Character Through Place" in Creating Fiction (Story Press, 1999) to be helpful on this topic.
Part III: Plot
What about plot and conflict? Let me recommend two books to help you tackle that most important story componenent. The first is Many Genres One Craft: Lessons in Writing Genre Fiction which, according to Leslie, is crammed with good advice. She should know--she contributed an article and it just won its second "Best" award for a writing how-to book in 2012.
Second, consider purchasing Becky Levine's book, "The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide." She has an excellent chapter on critiquing for plot along with a great deal of other useful information.