Guest post by CW Spalding.
C.W. Spalding is an emerging fantasy writer. She loves reading and writing middle grade and YA fantasy. Also, she’s an avid 5th Edition Dungeon Master. If you’d like to know more about what she’s up to, she makes regular posts on cwspalding.org as well as Twitter.
Tell me why it is that Spongebob is the main character when Patrick is the star? I’m kidding, but only a little.
There are two ways to approach the progress of a story, the first of which is plot-driven. In plot-driven stories, you have characters which are subject to the whims of their circumstances. A great example of this is The Lord of the Rings. It is a phenomenal story that delves into the effects of returning from war. Ultimately, though, the characters—the character’s lives—do not drive the plot. It is not because Frodo is a hobbit that the events of the story unfold. He merely happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time with a very stressed out Uncle.
– From LOTR
In contrast, with character-driven stories like To Kill a Mockingbird, tension comes from the characters’ hopes, fears, joys, and sadnesses. Things are happening in the world, but the main character, Scout, isn’t in immediate danger most of the time. She’s learning, watching, and coming to her own conclusions. A central character with no personality feels unrelatable and forgettable. You want to write a Harry Potter or a Katniss Everdeen. These are characters that act under pressure (even if they make wrong choices). These are also characters that have wants, desires, and lives outside the primary plot.
There has been—in recent years—a shift from plot-driven stories to character-driven stories. Readers like active characters, so here’s some tips you can use to make the shift.
1. Choices Drive The Story
It’s not about what happens to the character; it’s about what the character does. A character without autonomy feels lifeless. Does the character become better, does the character fall into ruin, or do they stay firm in the face of confrontation? It doesn’t really matter what’s going on around them so much as what they’re thinking, what they’re choosing, and where they end up.
2. Man vs. Self
Here are some examples. A person who wants to overcome an addiction, but they can’t. Another who wants to come out to their parents, but they’re scared of being thrown out. Man vs. Self shines in character-driven story telling. If a character’s actions can’t yet fulfill their desires, you have something juicy on your hands. What’s an example of man vs. self that you’ve read in recent years? Go ahead and comment below and don’t forget to follow Molly for regular updates.
3. Not Perfect
Now listen, because this is important. You aren’t perfect. People aren’t perfect. There is nothing more boring than a perfect person. Even “good” people aren’t perfect. They make mistakes, mess up, and don’t always know that to do. If you’re writing a character who’s the strongest, the bravest, and the besterest at everything, then it’s not a character-driven plot. Don’t describe your character with perfect features, give them physical and behavioral flaws.
4. Let Them Wander
Hey, if you know, as a writer, that the character doesn’t want to go to point B from point A, but you also know that there’s something important at point A… don’t force them there. Don’t drag them to the destination. Don’t kidnap, enslave, or pluck them up with your god in the machine and place them there. Let them wander! Let them conclude that they want or need to go. This goes back to our first point: what are their motivations? If your character is apathetic to the fate of the world, let them be like that. You’ll get a more unique story that way.
I hope that this article has helped you realize not only that, yes, you need to write a character-driven story, but also that you can write it. Keep writing, don’t give up. You too can write a character who is a star, just like Patrick. Much thanks again to my host Molly and thanks to all of you for reading this to the bitter end. Don’t forget to tell us your thoughts in the comments below. Do you agree with the lean towards character-driven story or do you reminisce about the plots of old? Good luck with your endeavors and may all your characters be rotund in body and soul.