Forever out of reach
One of the best tools for character conflict is a goal that can't be reached. That's one of the main reasons I wrote a whole column about regrets: a regret is by definition something a character can't change. The event has passed, the moment is gone, and all you can do is stare glumly at the past and wish that something had gone differently. But that's hardly the only thing that can be dangling forever out of a character's grasp; there are also goals that are unlikely to ever be realized in the lore (peace between two major factions) or just ones that are obviated by character traits (carrying a torch for another character who's already married).
The reason here, of course, is that an unattainable goal is something that the character is going to fail at. Repeatedly. And when it's done right, the character manages to strike that perfect point at which the goal is never totally unattainable but is instead forever just out of reach. You're aiming for a Sisyphean trial here, where you can almost get there each time at the stone, but you falter just shy of victory.
Care should be taken, however. Characters who can never succeed at even basic tasks wind up looking like the villain of a weekend cartoon or possibly a balding boy in a yellow shirt who's forever having a football pulled away before the kick. That's the tricky part of setting unattainable goals: They have to be just close enough to attainable that you can get away with it, which leads directly into the next point.
Every failure counts
Failure is often not something to feel upset about. If you lose horribly at poker night with your friends because you draw nothing but singletons a whole night, you don't feel bad about screwing up. Similarly, if your character has to deal with a string of inevitable failures at all times, it's not going to have a lot of personal weight. In order for a failure to really have bite, you have to own it.
Let's go back to the example before of negotiating peace between two in-game factions. If you claim you want peace but can't even get the two factions to sit down at a table together, it's hard to feel that as a truly personal injury. But if you get both factions down to a table, and you get them to start talking, and it looks like things might work out until the last minute... that's a loss. That's a moment when you got so close to actually winning that you could taste it, and then through some minor mistake everything got thrown out of line.
And if that last-minute drop was your own fault? Well, then, you really get to own it.
But almost reaching success is only one side of the coin. The other kinds of failures that sting are the ones that you knew from the start were doomed, efforts that never were going to work. Coming up with a laudable but utterly hopeless goal that the character knows is hopeless gives you a chance to really explore the whole angle of the heroic failure.
As a long-standing aside, the most common hopeless goal seems to be infatuation with someone else. I'm not saying that this should always be avoided, but in order for it to work, you're going to need to ensure it really is hopeless and simultaneously avoid slipping into maudlin territory. We see enough people whine about wanting to date someone who isn't interested in real life; there's no need to add to it in the game unless you've got a really good angle.
But on the other side of the coin...
For all that I'm talking about failure and making your character unhappy here, it should be noted that you can't keep yourself in a state of perpetual misery. Doing so essentially kneecaps your character and makes him no fun to be around because the only thing left for him to do is bemoan the horrors that life has inflicted upon him.
Note that all of the characters I mentioned in the last column had to go through some staggering lows and crushing failures to reach the end of the story. But in the end, they were successful. The One Ring was destroyed, Bill was indeed killed, the Empire and the Death Star both blew up with aplomb. And that's why these characters and stories stick in our mind, not because of the failures, but because of the successes that came about in spite of all those horrible setbacks and defeats.
That, really, is why you want your character to fail and be brought low on a regular basis -- it means that when he stands up and actually achieves what he wants, you can stand proud. You create an interesting character narrative. Or, depending on circumstance, you can decide to channel all of that misery in a different direction and turn a character into a much darker incarnation.
Just remember -- for everything that goes wrong for your character, you have to make sure that there's something to spur him or her forward. Otherwise, you're just being sadistic for no reason.
As always, feedback is welcome in the comments or via mail to email@example.com. Next week, I'd like to take another look at in-game romance, with a few updates and addenda from a topic that I covered way back in the column's infancy.
Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.