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

Adventures in the Pacific Northwest

Hello everyone!

What a crazy year 2020 has turned out to be. So many changes, challenges, and uncertainties in life right now, but through it all, my family and I have found new ways to connect and make memories together.

After living in Texas for 18 years, we decided to go back home. So we uprooted ourselves, only a few months before this whole pandemic thing happened, and moved across the country, which resulted in my family being separated from each other for several months. Our lives became a bit more crazy and chaotic. Since that time, we’ve settled into our new home, new jobs, and new surroundings. My daughter has rejoined us, my husband is now able to travel home after being on the road with his job for an extended length of time, and my family has had several opportunities to enjoy the beautiful area we now call home…the Pacific Northwest.

This area of the country has everything we love all wrapped into one wonderful package. Mountains, trees, rivers and lakes, the ocean, and spectacular views surround us everywhere we go. I’ve long awaited opportunities to explore and hike through my old stomping grounds. I thought I’d share some of our adventures with you.

Welcome to Seattle!

I don’t know why, but for some strange reason, I have an unusual obsession with ferries. They fascinate me, and I think they add unique character to the Seattle area.

A ferry on the Sound

Another icon of this area is the Space Needle, which is one of the coolest architectural structures I’ve ever seen. There are similar buildings in other large cities, but in my eyes, none will ever compare to the Space Needle.

The Space Needle, Seattle, WA

Another very distinctive element of Western Washington is lighthouses. We’ve visited a few now, but have many more to see.

Mukilteo Lighthouse

Buildings and boats aren’t why we returned here. The natural beauty of the area is what brought us back home. They say you don’t realize how much you miss something until it’s gone. Never has that statement been more true than returning home after spending 18 years away from it. I didn’t realize how much I missed the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest: Puget Sound, the Pacific Ocean, the Cascade and Olympic Mountains, forests, waterfalls, rivers, and trees…so many trees. It’s green everywhere you go, something I had missed beyond description.

The waterfalls are quite spectacular.

Snoqualamie Falls
Wallace Falls

There’s water everywhere you go.

Carkeek Park, Seattle
Camano Island
Mukilteo
Skykomish River
Wallace River
Bitter Lake
Puget Sound

When the sun sets and reflects off the ocean…nothing compares to that.

Western Washington is surrounded by majestic Mountains. The views are breathtaking.

Mt. Rainier
Mt. Baker
The Olympic Mountains
Winter on Stevens Pass in the Cascade Mountains

There are so many places to hike and enjoy the natural beauty of the woodlands in this area.

American bald eagles nesting atop a tree on Whidbey Island

The distinctive change in seasons is yet another wonder of the Pacific Northwest.

Fall in Ballard
Winter in Everett
Winter in Seattle
Spring in Mukilteo
Summer in Seattle

Western Washington has its own culture and quirkiness attached to it as well.

Pike Place Market before the pandemic
Historic Arlington
LaConnor
Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle
Fremont troll
Jimmy Hendricks statue, downtown Seattle
Ballard Locks
Camano Island
Fort Casey
Random art murals everywhere. This particular one is by a local spray paint artist known as “henry”
Seattle Pier, which is about to be dismantled 😞
Leavenworth, one of our favorite places

The photos and images here don’t do the Pacific Northwest justice. It’s one of those places you have to experience in person. Although this worldwide pandemic has put a halt on much of what used to be considered “normal”, such as travel, dining out, and just spending time with friends, one positive outcome from all this has been the bonding time and reconnection my little family has had. We’re enjoying our natural surroundings, getting outside, finding new things to do, and soaking in the beauty around us, PNW “coastal distancing” style.

Needless to say, we love our new environment and have settled in quite nicely to what we now call home (for me, it’s a return home).

Stay safe, everyone, and cherish this time with loved ones.

To Publish or Not To Publish…

To publish or not to publish…

That’s a good question!

Unfortunately, I don’t know the answer. Making the decision to publish a book is very personal, and many factors need to be taken into consideration.

Publish_bookYou spend months, maybe even years working on writing a book. You slave and bleed over every word, every detailed description, every conversation and interaction between characters until you finally type the last word. But the journey isn’t over yet.  It has only just begun.

Once the final word is put on paper, the arduous process of revising and editing begins. However time consuming, stressful, or mind-numbingly mundane the editing process can be, it is a necessity in the writing process. Afterall, you want your book to be the best it can be, right? So you sit for hours on end rereading, rechecking, and correcting, over and over again, errors, inconsistencies, and word choices to make your book “perfect” (for lack of a better word). You instill the help of others and ask for a second set of eyes to read through the manuscript you’ve put your whole heart into. They will criticize. They will correct. They will cut and shred and rip apart every aspect of your work. That is their job. You will tear this manuscript to shreds and read it over so many times that you are tired of looking at it. It’s all part of the the creative process.

Ok. So now that you have the perfect story, what are the next steps? Do you take the plunge and publish it, or do you sit on it and never show another living soul as long as you live?

Before you make that decision, there are many things to think about. First off, how open are you to criticism? How well do you take feedback? Do you have the time and patience to contact agents and publishing companies? Do you have thick enough skin to handle rejection? Are you willing to change your book’s content or sell off the rights to someone else? Do you have the resources available to seek alternative publication options? Have you researched these options? Have you considered every option and not limited yourself to just one path? Do you have the funds available, should you choose the self-publishing route, to cover the formatting, editing, and marketing costs of publication? All of these are important questions to ask. Publishing a book involves many things. Things I had no clue about when I first began this process.

Over the last five years (Has it really been five years?), I have learned many things about the publishing world. First and foremost, book publishing is an extremely competitive environment. There are millions and millions of books out there, and in the scheme of things, the author is merely a tiny minnow just trying to survive in a much larger ocean of bigger fish. Unless you stand out in the crowd, no one will even know you exist.

Many writers are under the misconception that they can publish a book and the sales will come. This is a load of BS. Sales don’t just come. Marketing involves a whole other layer to book writing that I knew nothing about when I began this process.

The whole “sell your book” process begins well before publication even happens. Marketing must be on the back of your mind from the minute you begin writing. Who is your target audience? How will you reach this audience? Where will you find people who might potentially buy your book, and how do you get them interested without constantly shoving your book in their face? (That is a huge turn off, by the way).

Content is your main selling point. What is your book about? Is it unique with content no one has written before? Can you summarize it in 30 seconds or less and make it interesting enough that people will want to buy it? Is the title catchy? The book blurb on the back is probably one of the most important things you will write. It can either make or break sale potential. Choose your words carefully.

Although people say you should never judge a book by its cover, they do. Does your cover look professional? Does it match other books in the genre and have “eye-catching” appeal? Is it colorful, but not cluttered? Does it pop and make people want to pick it up?  These are all factors to consider. And if you don’t have the skills to do this sort of thing, where can you find someone who does? Do you have the funds available to pay for their services, because they will not and should not do it for free. To me, this is an art, and a skill I don’t possess.

The outside of the book must look great, but formatting the inside is just as important. Different book formats require different formatting and file types, something I know next to nothing about. Kindle versions require one file type with specific formatting requirements, whereas paperback books require a completely different type of formatting. It’s confusing, and unless you are an expert on this and know precisely how to do it, your book could end up in the Kindle store with the spacing all messed up. If not done correctly, the margins in your paperback could be off or words and paragraphs could be cut off or sized incorrectly. I hired someone to do this, which goes back to my previous statement of having available funds. Hiring out for these services is costly.

You now have solid content, an eye-catching cover, and proper formatting. Now what? Selling! How do you sell this book that you’ve slaved over for months? Pricing your book is definitely something to seriously consider. Remember that the publishing world is highly competitive, and in all honesty, who wants to purchase a $20 book from a no-name author? Most people don’t. If you want to compete in this world, you have to offer something no one else has. You have to give people a deal and make the price they pay worthwhile. This has limitations. It costs publishers money to print out copies of your book.  The price you/they charge has to be enough to make a profit. And unless you are Stephen King, JK Rowling, or James Patterson, there is absolutely no guarantee that your book will sell enough copies for that to happen. You are a writer no one has ever heard of. Buying a book written by you is risky. Consider your cost carefully. Lower is better; there is less risk involved.

How comfortable are you with social media? These days, you can’t get attention (although I HATE being the center of attention) without being active on social media. Everyone uses social media in one form or another: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and a handful of others that seem to be popular today. You might be able to reach some potential readers through social media, but don’t count on it. Most people don’t use social media to look for books to read or discover new authors. They use it to socialize, in a sense. If you don’t have the time, energy, or patience to manage multiple social media accounts, no one will even know you exist as an author. I would strongly advise you NOT to constantly post your book online. Quite frankly, no one cares, and you will lose engagement and followers if you are constantly shoving your product in their faces. Think about it. Do you like it when people push products on you? Do you like the presence of ads constantly flashing in front of your face? Well, your followers and people you interact with on social media don’t like it either. Use the internet to make connections, not as an advertising agent.

Are you comfortable speaking or reading excerpts in front of an audience? Are you able to set up an appealing author table and talk about yourself and your work at events? How do you sell yourself at book signings? What “brand” do you have? (Yes, that’s a thing). Do you have the support, resources, and connections needed to sell books at events? Joining local writing groups can sometimes help with this. They tend to have an “in” with local agencies and know about upcoming events. Some even work together to set up booths and tables as a group to sell books. You can also research events through media sources and find upcoming events through local agencies and news articles or speak with other authors, if they are willing to share that information. Making your presence known and getting yourself out there is a full time job in itself.

Then, once you sell your first book and find your first reader, you face the fear and uncertainty of whether or not they like your work. What kind of review will they give you? Will readers spread the word about your writing? Will you sell more books? Will the months you dedicated to this offer any sort of financial compensation? Will others enjoy your work? They might. They might not. As writers, we live in this world of constant judgement. Our writing lives hang on the opinions of others.

While you’re debating and contemplating all of this, you are probably working on writing your next book, where the process begins all over again. But by this stage in the game, you are feeling so overwhelmed and have so much self-doubt, not only in yourself but with the entire process, that lifting a pen can sometimes be a challenge. Yet you keep at it, and one way or another, you find the energy to write.

So the question remains, should you publish that book you’ve written? That depends on you. Are you willing to dedicate the time, money, and energy needed to do so? Are you willing to face criticism, rejection, and judgement? Are you willing to do the necessary research and find the proper resources needed to publish and sell your work? Are you willing to make your presence known to the world without any promise of results? If you are, then go ahead and publish.

I’ve published five books over the last five years. Would I do it all over again? Yes, I would. I have no regrets. In fact, I’ve gained much knowledge over the years and learned many hard lessons about the publication process. That alone has been worth the ride. As a result of all this, I have changed a few things with every book I’ve published. I’ve used the knowledge I’ve gained about the process, taken advice from others, and changed my thinking to make the experience easier and less stressful for myself.

To publish or not to publish…you decide.

 

 

New Beginnings

Well, here we are. After the last 9 months of craziness, we are finally moving into our home. This has been a long anticipated adventure with many ups and downs. We had the wonderful privilege of watching our home being built from the ground up. We chose interior layout, color schemes, etc… and will FINALLY get to enjoy the benefits of living in our newly-built home.

It all started with a basic frame.

Which gradually built up and began to take shape.

Details were added.

Concrete poured and fences were built.

It wasn’t long before the interior began to take shape.

Landscaping was added, which makes me happy. 😁

And details were added inside.

Over time, our new house began to feel like home. Finally, after a very long wait, we are ready to move in.

It feels good to be back home in the Pacific Northwest. 🏠🌲❤