I've been working for the last year to solve this problem, and I've tried all sorts of things that, frankly, haven't worked. My agent (because he kept pointing out this flaw in the book that I could not fix) has been high on my list of people to hate. And my brain kept revolving in a truly simply awful and maddening way around the question "Who is this guy?"
I kept framing the question as "What does he want and how does that affect this story?" and that, I tell you, was a huge mistake.
I was in effect treating the main character as a prop, a plot device to move the story along, and not as a character. I can tell you loads about all the supporting characters, but I could not have told you much of any substance about my protagonist until yesterday afternoon.
Now, of course, I have realized who the protagonist is and what drives him and suddenly the story has a sort of motor, a perpetual-motion machine at its heart that will drive every scene and by gum, that's a cool thing to have. My current book, "Cocke & Bull," has had that internal motor from the beginning, but that book began as a conception of the two central characters. The book my agent has did not, and I spent too much time thinking about Shakespeare's play and not enough time thinking about my protagonist.
How'd I have this breakthrough? Well, it's thanks to my agent (Thanks, Jeff! Love you! I mean that this time!), who suggested that I mentally remove Horatio (my protagonist) from the story told in the book and pretend that he never met any of the other characters and never traveled to the book's settings and lived his whole life outside of the story I've written. So in that sort of vacuum as just some guy and not the hero of any particular story, who is this guy? What's he want? What interests him? What would he do with his life if he hadn't met the Hamlet Family? My agent had a suggestion that was completely wrong, but when I thought about why it was wrong, it got me thinking about what sort of thing would be right. That line of thought sparked an idea of my own a couple hours later, and that spark turned into a flame which has overnight grown into a big roaring bonfire and I can't wait, frankly, to get back to work on this book because it all makes sense now and I keep thinking of ways to make it even cooler than it already is and that spells WIN.
So likely I'm coming late to this party, and you've all been doing this forever, but it's a really cool tool for me, to remove my characters from the story I'm writing and see who they are when they're at home, as it were. I wanted to share this epiphany and see how many of you are already thinking like this.
Also, please note that I write this on Thursday (that's yesterday via the magic of teh internets), because today (which is tomorrow as I write this) Mighty Reader and I are off at an all-day garden show where we hope to learn how to prune the fruit trees in our back yard, which trees had been ignored for years by the previous owner of our house.