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 firstname.lastname@example.org