I have a few topics I could cover but the weird one on my mind right now is a show that I've been watching on SyFy (yes I know how that sounds, but I assure you, their programming quality is steadily improving) called The Magicians. It is based on a book series by Lev Grossman, which I have not read but has been added to my list after watching the series.
The premise sounds unoriginal - the main character discovers that he has magic and that there is a hidden world of magic-users, when he is admitted to a magical school. Doesn't sound like anything you've ever heard of before, right? The similarities end there however. If Hogwarts is the relatively safe learning environment of a private well-regarded boarding school, then Brakebills Academy is the fend-for-yourself community college of magic, where you'll receive very little interest or support from the staff, who couldn't care less what you do with magic once you're out from under their wings. Tonally very different from HP, it is a place where magic is drug-like and far less wondrous. It isn't perfect, but it is quite enjoyable.
I quickly became addicted to the show; while there are some pacing issues (which are apparently reflected in the books), the thing I love about the series are the characters. Yes, character is everything, but that is so much harder to do than to say. Particularly in science fiction and fantasy where often the milieu and world-building could be relegated to carry the story. I've read plenty of those in my time; as I've gotten older I've also realized how much less investing those kinds of stories are. In The Magicians, the characters are likable, but flawed and consistently make decisions that are justifiable but frequently terrible. I love watching them struggle with the normal minutiae of real life compounded with a magic system that quickly proves itself incapable of easy fixes. In fact when they do use magic it often creates more problems for them. Layering those things makes for interested characters.
I need to become better at this. I don't have problems coming up with neat concepts for stories - the "idea" and "what if" elements are some of my strengths. Divorced of a plot concept, I also thing I can create unique characters. The difficulty lies in working these in tandem. It boils down to a the driving force of the story. I need to practice balancing an intriguing concept with characters whose choices drive the action, instead of being pawns to the concept.
For me, this is a struggle, and one I'm working on. I hope to write more short stories in order to develop this, learning in short form and applying to longer pieces.