When you hear “character driven story,” the first thing that comes to mind is probably a piece of classic literature, possibly by someone like Louisa May Alcott or one of the Brontë sisters. Perhaps you are a fan of those stories, and it kindles a convivial flame in your bosom. Or perhaps you are, like me, a person who tends to run in the opposite direction in distaste. It’s not that they aren’t good books; in fact, I quite enjoyed The Secret Garden and Oliver Twist, so they’re obviously not all hateful in my sight. It’s just that I like a complex but quickly paced narrative with adventure, humor, and a few plot twists to spice things up.
My first attempts at writing mirror this desire: action scenes start on the first page and there’s never any lull in the pace. Rereading now, I find it all phenomenally boring—and even when the constance of unrelenting motion isn’t confusing, it’s impossible to really care on anything greater than a superficial level. The constant hustle prevents any actual introductions to the characters, whose only distinguishing features are their eclectic names. I went into those stories with a plot, quickly waning enthusiasm, and…nothing else. Plot-driven stories are fantastic and all that—without plot, it quickly becomes some abstract symbolism-type speculation more reminiscent of a character study than a story. However, when plot is the only thing happening, it’s easy to simply skim passively through the story. It’s difficult to become invested, and so the reader is basically unaffected by the protagonist. This can come out one of two ways:
1. The reader enjoys the story and is pulled through by wanting to know how the climax and denouement will play out. After finishing, though, they cannot recall more than cursory information about any of the characters (including their names) and, if they attempt to reread it, may find themselves unable to do so. The plot was compelling enough to carry them through the first read-through, but any subsequent attempt at reprise will leave them feeling dissatisfied and discourage them from continuing to read.
2. The reader does not find the plot compelling enough to read until the end, and puts the book down. This typically happens anywhere from fairly close to the beginning to over halfway through—it really depends on the reader’s perseverance (and, sometimes, their boredom level).
When a character is created simply to fill in the plot, there is a 99.9% chance that they’ll end up two-dimensional. (The .1% chance is an outlier; it is possible for the character to develop a life of their own and hijack the story into something good. You never know.) They pop into being with no context, no formational backstory to explain their behavior, and none of the aspects that connote proper characterization. Think of it like this: you meet someone. At this point, you know next to nothing about them except their name (unless you’re a bona fide Sherlock Holmes, or some kind of stalker). Once you spend more time with them, however, the little quirks in their personality are made known to you. You can now evaluate them and decide whether you are friends, enemies, or still mere acquaintances. Now think of this in a plot-driven context:
- You begin reading a story.
- You’re thrown into the action from page one.
- The action never stops. Or intensifies.
- Or really does anything despite inexorably continuing, long past when all sane characters would have taken a break to avoid some sort of overwork-related injury.
- Never is the main character (or any other character, for that matter) developed beyond basic traits (trustworthy, heroic, funny, evil, etc.).
- Can you empathize with any of the characters?
- (Really? These cardboard-cutout-stunt-doubles? Please.)
- Chances are, not in the least.
So where’s the compromise? Turns out, all you need to do is reorganize your process. You have your great plot idea, but now what you need are strong three-dimensional characters to carry it through. Instead of just slapping together some Mary-Sue, create a character. Take this character, and flesh them out. If your character is truly fleshed out, you will be able to answer for what they’d do in basically any situation. They become a person in your mind. Avoid the temptation of making any of your characters Superman; all your characters should have multiple flaws (like real people) and multiple “weaknesses” or fears (like real people) and complicated morals and boundaries (like, you guessed it, real people). It takes a bit more work, but it really is worth it.
Once you’ve accumulated a cast of solid characters, insert them into the story. You know how they’d act. You know how they’d react. You know their group dynamic and their individual dynamics. You accumulate all the important little snippets of information that really make these into real people (inasmuch as fictional constructs can be real).
It may lead to some changes in plot, but, well, characters are like that—when well fleshed out, they have a life of their own. They tend to commandeer your narrative and steer you in ways you don’t expect. As a writer, it’s quite likely that sometimes your stories will surprise you as much as they will your readers. And that’s good; you’ll have written something that affects people in some way, that makes them think, that has characters to whom they can relate.
That’s the sort of story I want to read.