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

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

 

 

Writing a Stellar Book Blurb

write a poetry book blurb

I don’t know about you, but writing the novel is the easy part, compared to writing the book blurb. How do you take a 100+ page novel and condense it to fit on the back cover of a book? And how do you make it intriguing enough to get people to want to read it? Writing a book blurb has always been challenging for me, but I recently took several classes on this topic and learned a few things that you might find helpful.

The blurb on the back of your book is all about the journey.  Who is your protagonist? What is his or her goal? What problems are they up against? Readers want to discover this journey on their own.  Give them a glimpse inside your book that draws them into the character’s world.

There are three main elements to a good book blurb.

  1. The setup. This is the underlying theme of the book, the problem. For example, “She was kidnapped not once, but twice, and now someone wants her dead.”
  2. The capture. This is the backstory, the kickstart, the conflict. The capture tells the reader about the hurdles the character has to get over to meet their goal.
  3. The intrigue. Leave the reader with a question. Will the character succeed or fail?

When writing a book blurb, always remember to include the name of the protagonist, Image result for book blurbwhat the protagonist wants, and how the protagonist got in this situation. What is the connection between the protagonist and the antagonist? What are the main events that kickstart the story? What is the first main event that stops the protagonist from moving forward? Also, make sure the tone of the blurb matches the tone of the book. If the book is dark, emotional, mysterious, then the blurb needs to be too.

Be careful though, because a book blurb is not a synopsis or a summary of your book. Blurbs should be around 200 words and should focus on the struggle. A blurb is not a detailed description. A book blurb is also not an endorsement. Testimonials should not be included in your blurb. If you want to include them before or after the blurb, that’s fine, but they should not be present in the blurb itself.

For more information on this topic, visit the following sites:

Writing Blurbs for Novels

How to Write Back Blurb for Your Book

How to Write an Effective Book Blurb

How to Write a Fiction Book Blurb

A Simple Outline for Writing a Killer Book Blurb

7 Tips For Writing a Book Blurb

How to Write a Great Book Blurb

What’s the Difference Between a Book Blurb and a Synopsis?

How to Write a Killer Book Blurb

Ten Question Cheat Sheet for Writing a Compelling Book Blurb

Examples of Book Blurbs

Character Archetypes – How to Create Dynamic Characters

With the current chaos going on in my life right now (new job in a new grade level in a new school, getting a new AC unit installed in my house, going solar powered, working on new WIP, etc…), I haven’t written a new post in a while.  My brain has been going 100 miles an hour lately, and I haven’t been able to put anything comprehensive down on paper in weeks. Let’s see if we can fix that today.

Although I’m not a traditional romance writer, about a year ago, I became a member of my local chapter of RWA. This fabulous group of people consists of all walks of life, and not all members are romance writers, myself included. Men and women, both published and non-published, make up this group: Indie authors, traditionally published authors, screenwriters, teachers, students, former attorneys and active military members, technology gurus, mothers, fathers, real-estate agents, and even a woman who writes for Harlequin and had one of her books turned into a movie. Needless to say, the writing expertise within this group is pretty well-rounded.

I originally joined this group for the insights they offer about the craft of writing. Regardless of genre, the information obtained from the many seminars I’ve attended through this group have helped me become a better writer.

The last seminar I attended focused on archetypes. For those of you who don’t know what that is, an archetype is a pattern of behavior that is universally present in characters in classic storytelling. It can be better summarized as the universal personality traits of a character. These personality traits are pretty standard, regardless of whether it is a character in a movie, book, or play or a person in real life.  As I review each one, you’ll probably get images in your head of people you know or literary/ movie characters you’ve seen or read about who portray these characteristics.  Let’s get started, shall we?

There are female archetypes and male archetypes, some of which are interchangeable. Every archetype has positive and negative personality traits, but the best characters do not fall under one specific archetype. They are made up of a combination of these traits.

I’ll go over the female archetypes first.  There are 8 main ones.

  1. The Boss. This girl is a real go-getter. She climbs the ladder of success. Queen Elizabeth is a good example.
  2. The Seductress. She’s an enchantress. She charms those around her to get her way. Scarlett O’Hara is a classic seductress.
  3. The Spunky Kid. This is a woman who is gutsy and true. She’s a loyal friend to the end. Pretty much every character Meg Ryan has ever played can be classified as a spunky kid.
  4. The Free Spirit. This is a person who is an eternal optimist. She dances to her own tune. Phoebe from the TV show Friends nails this archetype.
  5. The Waif. She is the damsel in distress. Sleeping Beauty, Bella from Twilight, and Audrey Hepburn to name a few.
  6. The Librarian. She is controlled and clever. She doesn’t have to be a bookwork or a scholar though. Hermione Granger from Harry Potter and Belle from Beauty and the Beast are librarians.
  7. The Crusader. She is a dedicated fighter. She has a cause and fights for the greater good. Katniss from the Hunger Games and Wonder Woman are crusaders. Go girls!
  8. The Nurturer. She is serene and capable. These are people who nurture the spirit of others (can be animals and plants too).  One person comes to mind with this one: Julie Andrews. She played a nurturer in Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music.

Let’s move on to the male archetypes now.  Again, there are 8 main ones, and you’ll find that some are similar to their female counterparts.

  1. The Chief. He is a dynamic leader and wants to be in charge. He is goal oriented and has time for nothing but work.  Michael Douglas in Wall Street or Captain Picard from Star Trek exemplify this archetype.
  2. The Bad Boy. He’s dangerous to know simply because he walks on the wild side. Danny in Grease or Prince Harry would be considered bad boys.
  3. The Best Friend. He’s sweet and safe and never lets anyone down. Patrick Dempsey in Enchanted and any Tom Hanks character.
  4. The Lost Soul. This man is a tormented being.  He’s a recluse and lives in solitude. The Beast in Beauty and the Beast, Shrek, and Wolverine are lost souls.
  5. The Charmer. He’s a smooth talker. The fairy tale Prince Charming. George Clooney plays these characters. Jack from Titanic was also a charmer.
  6. The Professor. This guy knows all the answers. The Professor from Gilligan’s Island, Frasier, and Sherlock Holmes are considered professors.
  7. The Swashbuckler. This is Mister Excitement. He’s an adventurer and often breaks the rules. Indiana Jones and Han Solo are swashbucklers. (Hmmm, Harrison Ford seems to play these characters a lot). Maverick from Top Gun is also a swashbuckler. I would say Will Turner from Pirates of the Caribbean is too.
  8. The Warrior. He is a noble fighter who acts with valor. Superman and To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Atticus Finch are warriors.

You’ll notice that some of the female/ male archetypes are similar. And there are some male characters who fit into the female archetypes and vice versa, like nurturer. Newt Scamander from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Mrs. Doubtfire, played by Robin Williams, are both nurturers although they are male characters.  The best characters are dynamic and complex. They don’t fit into one generic mold. They are a combination of one or more of these archetypes, just like each one of us is.

This is a guideline only. Not every character you write will fit perfectly into a specific archetype, but neither do we. As writers, we are observers of life. Use the people around you as inspiration.

Creating Your Own Frankenstein

“It’s alive! Alive!” These are the famous words from a classic science fiction movie and an 80’s movie theme song. Though it meant the creation of both a terrifying monster and a geek’s wet dream, the word we’re looking for here is “creation”. Creating characters within a story is a detailed process for writers. You […]

via Building characters in a story is like creating your own Frankenstein — Mark Piggott | Author of the “Forever Avalon” Series

Let the Characters Drive

Letting the Characters Drive.

thealchemyofwords

I’ve been advised against writing in first person several times. The general advice seems to be that publishers don’t like it and it’s harder for readers to get into the story. I could never understand that because I’ve alway loved reading first person. It pulls me into the story. When I’m reading first person, I get so absorbed in the story that I forget I’m reading.  It feels like the story is simply in my head. The narration of third person constantly reminds me that I’m reading words on a page. Thinking back, it seems that all the books I would binge read were in first person, while third person was easier for me to put down and function like a normal person (which is important sometimes).

I felt like there was something missing in that advice. I wasn’t going to presume to tackle the entire publishing industry, but there was…

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