What we value drives all our decisions, from the friends we choose to the jobs we take to where we live or what types of families we have.
This is also true of your characters.
You don't need to know everything your character values, but the more you know, the better you'll understand who your character is and what drives her (or him or it).
Also, the more easily you'll be able to create conflict. That matters because without conflict, there's no story.
You can create conflict by starting with a character you’re drawn to, figuring out that person's values, then choosing conflicting values for another character who opposes the first.
For example, if you want to write about a protagonist who highly values peace and getting along with others, you might give him an antagonist who believes that disputing every point is the best way to get to the truth or to foster the most honest relationship.
This difference can create great conflict—and so spark a story—whether you’re writing romance, horror, literary fiction, or any other genre.
On the other hand, if you have a plot but no characters yet, you can start with what values your significant characters would need to serve that plot.
In Pride and Prejudice, protagonist Elizabeth Bennet highly values happiness and love in marriage, as well as compatibility, having seen her parents’ unhappiness.
Those values place her at great conflict with the practical realities of her life.
We learn on page one of the book that she is one of five Bennet sisters who, along with their mother, face homelessness and poverty when their father dies, as his estate passes to a distant cousin.
Nonetheless, Elizabeth, defying her mother’s wishes, refuses to marry the cousin.
The marriage would ensure she, her mother, and her sisters will be protected upon the father’s death. If Elizabeth didn’t value happiness—or perhaps avoiding definite unhappiness—in marriage so highly, she’d accept the proposal to protect herself and her family. But there would be no conflict, so no story.
And Scarlett O'Hara
As another example, in Gone With The Wind Scarlett marries her sister's fiancé to get money to support the family's home.
Her highest values are saving her family’s plantation and keeping her family from starving. She's sure that if her sister marries the man, his money will not go toward the family or their home but toward the sister alone.
Someone whose highest value was loyalty to her sister would make a different choice, as would someone who valued romantic love above all.
Love Scarlett or hate her, admire her or criticize her, does anyone doubt that she would marry her sister's beau in those circumstances? Not for a second. That's a character with strong, clear values. Gone With The Wind is full of conflict as a result.
Think about the protagonist and antagonist in a story you're writing or plotting.
What do they value most? Do those values conflict? If not, is there a way you can alter their values so that they do?
P.S. For more on developing characters, check out my Free Character Creation Tip Sheet.