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 Tips From Fiction Authors

Tip1: “My first rule was given to me by TH White, author of The Sword in the Stone and other Arthurian fantasies and was: Read. Read everything you can lay your hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.” — Michael Moorcock

Tip 2: “Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.” — Zadie Smith

Tip 3: “Introduce your main characters and themes in the first third of your novel. If you are writing a plot-driven genre novel make sure all your major themes/plot elements are introduced in the first third, which you can call the introduction. Develop your themes and characters in your second third, the development. Resolve your themes, mysteries and so on in the final third, the resolution.” — Michael Moorcock

Tip 4: “In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.” — Rose Tremain

Tip 5: “Always carry a note-book. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.” — Will Self

Tip 6: “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” — Jonathan Franzen

“Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.” — Zadie Smith

Tip 7: “Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.” — Jonathan Franzen

Tip 8: “Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK (prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out—they can be got right only by ear).” — Diana Athill

Tip 9: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov

Tip 10: “Listen to the criticisms and preferences of your trusted ‘first readers.'” — Rose Tremain

Tip 11: “Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.” — Jonathan Franzen

Tip 12: “Don’t panic. Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me and see beyond it, in quick succession, the derisive reviews, the friends’ embarrassment, the failing career, the dwindling income, the repossessed house, the divorce . . . Working doggedly on through crises like these, however, has always got me there in the end. Leaving the desk for a while can help. Talking the problem through can help me recall what I was trying to achieve before I got stuck. Going for a long walk almost always gets me thinking about my manuscript in a slightly new way. And if all else fails, there’s prayer. St Francis de Sales, the patron saint of writers, has often helped me out in a crisis. If you want to spread your net more widely, you could try appealing to Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, too.” — Sarah Waters

Tip 13: “The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement – if you can’t deal with this you needn’t apply.” — Will Self

Tip 14: “Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!” — Joyce Carol Oates

Tip 15: “The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.” — Jonathan Franzen

Tip 16: “Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.” — Elmore Leonard

Tip 17: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” — Neil Gaiman

Tip 18: “You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.” — Will Self

Tip 19: “The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.” — Neil Gaiman

Tip 20: “The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying ‘Faire et se taire’ (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as ‘Shut up and get on with it.’” — Helen Simpson

Setting the Stage

snoopySetting is such a crucial piece of a story. In order to have a great story, a writer must not only have dynamic characters, but a setting to put these characters in. All stories have some sort of setting, whether it is in an imaginary land full of mythical creatures or takes place during the 1800s. Setting helps paint a picture for the reader and initiates the main backdrop and mood for a story.

Setting is broadly defined as the location of the plot or where an event takes place. Setting is both the time and geographic location within a narrative or work of fiction. This includes region, geography, climate, buildings, and interiors.

Selecting an appropriate setting for your story must go beyond just you liking it. The behavior of fictional characters often depends on their environment. Setting sets the stage for what happens to your characters. Why does the character need to be there? What part does it play in your character’s journey or their past? Characters need to interact with the setting.

When building your setting, don’t do it all at once. World building should happen over the course of your entire novel, layered into every scene. The goal is to create a well-designed background for your characters without overwhelming the scene or interrupting the story. Carefully balance introducing readers to your world while maintaining plot. Let the setting unfold as the characters move through the scene. Build in elements of weather, lighting, the season, and time. A good rule of thumb is not to spend more than 3-4 paragraphs on setting at a time. Start with the bigger picture then zoom in on the details. Don’t try to include every tiny detail in your description. Focus on things your characters would notice, keeping in mind that different characters will see and interact with the scenery in different ways.

Help the reader picture themselves in the story. Include different senses when describing the setting. In real life, we explore and experience our surroundings through our senses. Through our experiences, we respond with an emotional reaction. Your characters need to do the same.

Utilize the internet and do research. Look up maps, tourist information, and photos of specific places you’d like to include in your setting. Gather information and use some of it when writing your description. If you are able, visit these places in person. It can add depth and flair to your writing.

For more information on setting, see the links below.

Writer’s Edit

Writer’s Digest

The Importance of Story Setting

Common Setting Mistakes

Writing World

Location, Location, Location

Writing the Perfect Scene

We’ve all heard the classic writing advice, “Show, don’t tell.” But according to Dwight Swain, author of Techniques of the Selling Writer, “Most folks get ‘Show, don’t tell’ wrong because they take it literally rather than figuratively. It’s not about proof (showing sad characters cry) but about causality (revealing why characters cry). Don’t just show readers the effect of emotion, reveal the cause so they can feel it too.”

Swain further said, “Your reader reads first and foremost for emotional stimulation.”Image result for writing quotes by dwight swain

Writers invoke and shape emotions by creating scenes.

A workshop I attended recently by Damon Suede (author of  Verbalize, a new guide to characterization and story planning suitable for newbies and experts, pantsers and plotters) took a different angle to scene writing that I had never heard before. Here’s Damon’s take on writing scenes.

We’ll start by defining what a scene is: A scene is a unit of struggle between opposing forces. Scenes are clear, active steps which create problems and move the story toward its final outcome.

Every scene should lead the character to his or her objective. A character’s objective needs to be challenging enough to sustain your character throughout the story’s length, significant enough to attract character attention and to inspire escalating risks, and relatable enough that anyone can grasp the character’s need to pursue it.

A scene follows the pattern of:

  • GOAL: Specific object that drives action. The immediate gimme-gimme. Make it something you can photograph (e.g. grandkids or a bungalow in the Maldives), but avoid abstractions (e.g. happiness or peace).
  • CONFLICT: Obstacles opposing the goal. Friction between the POV character’s needs and the reality they face. This is not necessarily combat, but a force which must be tackled during the scene.
  • DISASTER: Failure to accomplish the goal. A defeat that ends the conflict. It raises the stakes and derails progress via threats, complication, or impediment. It should demand a decision.

Each scene reveals character tactics. The character makes an offer/demand which is either accepted or rejected, requiring a new offer/demand. For best results, establish time, place, point of view, and context as soon as possible. Identify stakes within the first half-page to engage readers. Keep building to hooks that make readers turn the page.

After each scene, comes the sequel. This is not a sequel as in the next book in a series. This is different. In this case, a sequel is the aftermath. It acts as a transition between two scenes. Sequels are internal and pinpoint character action. They allow adaptation/course correction after interactions to improve the odds of success.

A sequel follows the pattern of:

  • REACTION: Emotional effects of disaster. Use this to reveal character: fear/hope, virtues/failings. Make it believable.
  • DILEMMA: Situation with no good options. Review the options. Amplify difficulty by challenging habits.
  • DECISION: Choosing the best of (bad) options, which leads to new tactics. Demand sacrifice, and make sure this points directly at a new/next goal.

Sequels bridge scenes. Whatever decision the POV characters make initiates a new tactic for the subsequent scene. These tactical shifts allow POV characters to regroup.

The Overall Scene Structure by Better Novel Project

(Infographic courtesy of Helping Writers Become Authors)

Scenes drive the story forward through external action that impact characters (and readers) via tactics and objects. Sequels deepen the story through internal assimilation by characters (and readers) via actions and objectives. You must have both to wring as much satisfying emotion from the reader as possible.

-Taken from Damon Suede’s workshop, Scene & Sequel: the rhythm of fiction

 

 

Keep It Simple

Keeping it simple, imagine that. I find it funny that when we teach writing in schools, we do everything but this. We give kids lists of alternative, flowery words and phrases to use, we provide them with other words for ‘said’, and teach them the proper use of adverbs. Yet in the real writing world, the world of editors and agents and publication companies, all of this is frowned upon.

This article sums up “keep it simple” quite nicely. Enjoy!

Writing your first novel-Things you should know

fewer-wordsWhenever you write, you should aim for maximum simplicity. You want tight writing with no redundancies, flowery language, or longer than necessary words. Shun pretentious writing. It exposes your inexperience.

I borrowed the following example from a class I am taking through Udemy. It does a great job of showing what I am trying to explain. If you haven’t checked Udemy out, I would highly recommend their classes. They are informative, interesting, and very easy to follow, and are a fraction of the cost of most sites I’ve visited. Now back to my blog and the example 🙂

The specific point I am trying to make is that the colors red and gray go well together.

The point I am trying to make is that the colors red and gray go well together.

My point is that the colors red and gray go well together.

The colors red and gray…

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Ideas to Help Write Better Characters

Great tips on character development and a bit of info on an upcoming writing contest.

Rachael Ritchey

In honor of the upcoming Adventure Writing Contest that starts the end of February (click here for more info) I want to help writers by offering info and websites that will hopefully help us all be better writers.

That’s the goal.

Today we’re going to look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (click here for more detailed information from simplypsychology.org). Maslow originally published this motivational theory back in 1943, then I believe it was updated in 1954. This is a psychological look at what motivates humans from our most basic needs up.

But maybe you’re wondering what this has to do with writing fiction? A lot actually, and it could go a long way to helping write better, more believable characters whose behaviors are directly related to their motivations and deepest needs.

Maslow's_Hierarchy_of_Needs By User: Factoryjoe (Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs.svg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The chart…

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