How to Write More Character-Driven Stories

Today I have a guest post from Desiree Villena, who is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories.


A dichotomy is often set up between plot and character-driven stories. In plot-driven stories, plot itself is the most important factor and characters may be interchangeable; in character-driven stories, character takes a front seat and the plot unfolds in a way that depends on their personalities and choices.

But the distinction between plot-driven and character-driven stories isn’t always so clear — and frankly, all the best stories have both exciting plots and well-developed characters. With that said, here are some particular things you can do to establish your characters more firmly at the heart of your story!

1. Get to know your characters

If you’re going to be writing about your characters deeply enough to convince your readers of their authenticity (and of your story’s authenticity in turn), you want to know them inside-out. One great way to delve into the depths of each character’s psyche is to do some character exercises. These need not be long or complicated! For example, you might:

  • Make use of character questionnaires or interviews, which require you to think about how your character might answer particularly obscure questions.
  • Come up with specific scenarios and write a short piece detailing how each character would think, behave, and react in such a scenario. What would your character do if they got stood up on a date? What if they accidentally locked themselves out of the house?

As well as thinking about what your character is like at the time your book takes place (for instance, do they find it difficult to trust people?) you should also think carefully about their backstory — how they came to be the way they are. This backstory can then be woven into your writing to lend context to your character’s behaviors and make them feel more real.

Carrying out this thorough groundwork as you plan your novel will give you a well-formed understanding of your characters to keep in mind as you write. This will be hugely helpful in terms of guiding the thoughts and actions you ascribe to them — which will in turn guide the overall arc of your story.

2. Remember that nobody is perfect

We all love our characters, and may even want to believe they’re flawless… but when a character is portrayed as completely perfect, they lose that believability and relatability that makes readers emotionally invest in and connect with them. In other words: making a character perfect actually dehumanizes them, and weakens your story.

And for a character-driven story to really come to life, simply giving your character a minor flaw or two won’t cut it. In a plot-driven story — where characterizations may not be as complex or relevant to the story’s action — we might expect the line between characters’ flaws and virtues to be well-distinguished. But in character-driven stories, characters are not just supposed to be imperfect, but a little bit messy as well.

Between their flaws and virtues, the difference might not be so clear-cut, adding to their intrigue. The journey from unawareness to awareness of their flaws and potential for change will make their character arc much richer, like Briony’s journey from immaturity and righteousness to recognizing her mistake and wishing to make up for it in Atonement.

Try thinking about your own characters’ personalities and what their corresponding flaws might be. For example, if they’re a hard worker, one of their flaws might be refusing to ask for help, or ignoring their family and friends in favor of getting ahead at work. Having a handle on these flaws will give you a much better idea of their natural progression through the story.

3. Make your character’s goals clear

As you build this in-depth picture of your characters, you will hopefully identify their desires and goals. To make their goals into focal points of your narrative and really lead the plot, it is important you establish them clearly and early. Goals, after all, motivate your characters to make the decisions they do, guiding the story on its path. Some more examples:

  • Emma Bovary’s ambitions for excitement beyond dull everyday life drive her to engage in multiple affairs and excessive spending.
  • Jay Gatsby’s desire to win Daisy back leads him to throw lavish parties in hopes of getting her attention, and to make increasingly reckless decisions to gain her love.

Where in a plot-driven story, the story’s ultimate destination would be a piece of action that would occur regardless of characterization, the destination for a character-driven story will be the protagonist’s goal or reaching the endpoint of their character arc. (In both of the examples given above, this is the character’s tragic downfall and ultimate death.)

Of course, character-driven resolutions are not exclusive to plot-driven ones — again, in any great story (and in the examples above), both characterization and plot should manifest in the ending — but in terms of ensuring your story is as character-driven as possible, try to think about character first and foremost. Still, you do want your strong, consistent characterization to feed into an excellent plot! On that note… 

4. Don’t lose sight of the external world

Character-driven stories often focus on internal conflict. But while this is obviously very important, you don’t want to get so caught up inside your characters’ heads that you forget about external conflict.

In fact, external conflict is necessary to create internal conflict. As a writer, you have the joy of creating an interesting and challenging world for your characters to live in. By allowing your characters out into this world you have created, they will be faced with the inevitable complications it presents.

These external challenges then serve as a stage on which your characters’ stormy internal conflicts can play out. When they’re forced into making a hard decision, the push-and-pull factors that give rise to their internal conflict(s) will be brought to light. The focus on these internal struggles takes your story further towards the character-driven end of the spectrum while, again, not sacrificing plot.

5. Give consequences to actions

One tell-tale sign of an overly plot-driven story is when a character mysteriously gets away with something they probably shouldn’t. Here it becomes apparent that what the characters think or do is of little consequence to the plot, because the plot is pre-established and the characters are simply instruments that enable the progression of events.

To keep a hold on your characters’ actions determining your story, try to ensure that all your characters’ actions (no matter how small) have consequences. Be these consequences that hinge on other characters’ reactions or simply consequences that make sense based on the way our world — or the world you have built — works, doing this will ensure you don’t end up contorting your story just to hit a plot point.

For a final example, one of my favorite instances of this is the ending of the 2019 blockbuster Uncut Gems. Those who have seen it will remember that Adam Sandler’s character gets what was coming to him — a resolution that’s surprisingly satisfying for viewers because it’s absolutely realistic for his character.

Writing more character-driven stories comes down to how well you know your characters and remaining conscious that your plot should be built around them, rather than the other way round. I hope this helps, and best of luck with your writing!


If you would like to get in touch with Desiree, you may email her at desiree.j.villena@gmail.com

Writing is Like Exercise – A Guest Post By Sarah Foil

Sarah Foil books

“Writing is like exercise. Make sure you’re giving yourself the best tools possible so you can continue working and improving.”Sarah Foil

I first got the idea that I wanted to be novelist when I was in fifth grade. I had a teacher fall in love with a fable-esque short story I wrote and told me I should be a writer. I took that advice as gospel and threw out my idea of being a dolphin trainer (although sometimes I wonder if that would still be better career choice). When fifth grade Sarah Foil looked out on her future, she saw writing in a secluded office all day, reading amazing books, being an international bestseller, going on book tours. In my mind, I was going to graduate with my undergraduate degree in Creative Writing, immediately get a book deal and become a full time writer. Surprisingly, things didn’t work out that way.

To me, at this age and even on to my college years, the thought of an MFA program, spending two more years in school, delaying my writing career and spending more money on tuition, was ridiculous.  Many writers and even published authors still share this thought, regardless of experience level or age. Our community has this attitude that writing is an innate talent that you either have or don’t have. It can’t be taught and there’s no value in pouring thousands of dollars a year into reading and writing exercises that you could do on your own. While it’s true that some people will always have a predisposition to art while others have to work much harder, the idea that investing in your future of a writer is wasteful is something we need to stop perpetuating.

Here’s the problem: writing, and art in general, is not a genetic trait, like being able to roll your tongue or being double jointed. Think of writing as a form of exercise instead. If I substitute the word “running” for “writing” when I talk about my career this is how it would translate: When I was in fifth grade I knew I wanted to run as a career. I ran from time to time and watched other people run a lot. In college, I ran track and even bought a gym membership. But I didn’t want to continue to spend time and money on my running career after college. I wanted to go straight to the Olympic running team. That sounds kind of crazy, doesn’t it?

Olympic-level runners have trainers. They have a team of people who watch and critique them. They challenge themselves and set new goals. They don’t graduate college suddenly at the top of their field. They continue to work. Moreover, if you’re not running and pushing yourself every day, you’re not going to get any better. You’re going to come back to that track and find it more daunting and terrifying than ever. Joining an MFA is just like hiring a professional trainer, which was a difficult idea for me to accept even after I was accepted into the program, but I got much more out of it than I could have planned for.

Here are some things you’ll get in an MFA program that would be hard for you to come by outside a program.

  1. Mentorship– In my program I was able to work with professional, published authors one-on-one every semester. I could tell them what was easy for me, what I struggled with and what I was hoping to gain from my experience. This mentorship was essential in improving my writing.
  2. A Community– I joined possibly the best cohort (or class) that I could have asked for. These are people that I worked with through every step of the way. I didn’t read everyone’s manuscripts but we all knew that we were going through the same struggle and were there to support support each other when we needed to.
  3. Regular Critique Groups– This is probably the most valuable thing you can gain from joining an MFA program. You can submit a chunk of writing every round for critique and get feedback from fellow students and mentors. Sure, there are online communities you can join and if you’re lucky there’s local critique groups available to you, but I struggled with these options before my MFA program. In general, I find online critique groups too impersonal and critical. People seem to forget that the point of critique is to encourage people to improve their work, not discourage them from writing all together. In a face-less online environment people find it too easy to brutally honest. The imperson critique groups in my MFA program were the exact opposite: constructive and tough, but also encouraging.
  4. Craft Workshops– You know how it feels in school or college when you have a teacher who just loves what they do? They talk about their work, no matter how mundane it is, and you’re drawn by their enthusiasm. That’s what a craft workshop feels like. You have these professional writers get up and talk about something as simple as the construction of a sentence, but by the end you’re rethinking the way you write.

So, my message is this: consider an MFA program. Don’t be like me and think you’re too good for professional help. My writing has made a complete transformation from three years ago when I finished my graduate degree. I look back on the work I did then and can literally see the difference. My writing is more condensed, my language is more mature, my character are deeper and my plot has more meaning than I could have imagined.

Even worse, don’t think that you’re not good enough for an MFA program. There are hundreds of programs out there. Sure, some are limited to published authors only. Some only accept ten people a year. But for every one of these exclusive, elite programs, there are twenty more that would love to have you in their community. If you’re not already a full time writer, you don’t even have to worry about quitting your day job. You can join a program like mine, the Mountainview MFA, which is Low Residency so you can be part of an in person community but still make money and support your family. A number of new online-only MFA programs are also available, which are a great option for those of us without the means to travel.

If at the end of this post you still feel like an MFA program isn’t for you, that’s okay. Maybe you have more growing to do before you’re ready to move on to a graduate degree. Or maybe it will never be a good fit for the path you see your writing career going. That’s okay. Just don’t forget that writing is like exercise. Make sure you’re giving yourself the best tools possible so you can continue working and improving.

Sarah Foil GraduationSarah Foil is a writer, editor, and media manager based out of North Carolina. She has an MFA in Fiction from the Mountainview MFA program and focuses on YA Fantasy. While her current passion project is her YA Fantasy trilogy, which is currently seeking representation, she spends much of her time running and managing Sarahfoil.com, a resource for writers and readers of all kinds. She loves encouraging writers to continue to improve through her editing services and sharing her personal writing journey through blog posts and on Facebook and Twitter. If you have any questions about her services or MFA programs, please reach out via sarahfoil.com/contact .