Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Characters—Who’s Driving the Story?

There are all different ways to drive your story, but for me, it’s the characters. I love character-driven stories. They have characters that are three dimensional and memorable. They make the story “why” based, rather than “how” based.

Martha Alderson, an international plot consultant and the founder of Blockbuster Plots for Writers., describes it this way:

Broadly speaking, writers who prefer writing action-driven stories focus on logical thinking, rational analysis, and accuracy. Action-driven writers tend to rely more on the left side of their brain. These writers approach writing as a linear function and see the story in its parts. Action-driven writers like structure. They usually pre-plot or create an outline before writing. Action-driven writers have little trouble expressing themselves in words.

On the other hand, writers who write character-driven stories tend to focus on aesthetics and feelings, creativity and imagination. These writers access the right side of their brains and enjoy playing with the beauty of language. They are more intuitive, and like to work things out on the page. Character-driven writers are holistic and subjective. They can synthesize new information, but are somewhat (or more) disorganized and random. They see the story as the whole. Right brain writers may know what they mean, but often have trouble finding the right words.

While I don’t think I’m disorganized or random, I do agree in general with what Alderson says. My stories start out with the characters—who are they, what do they do and think, why do they do and think that, what would happen to them if I did this? I tend to develop scenes around a particular thought or emotion given by that character and then string those scenes together to make a story. Sometimes it works, and I end up with a complete manuscript. Other times, I have a great scene, but that’s about all.

I like to delve into the psychological reactions and reasons for what my characters do. What are the obstacles that are preventing the hero and heroine from getting together? For me, those obstacles are usually not tangible, external conflicts, but rather emotional or internal conflicts. I enjoy figuring out what they are and how to solve them—and it’s so much easier solving a fictional character’s neurosis than my own! J


  1. Interesting quote, Jen. I'm not sure I agree with her black and white assessment.
    Stories need a plot. Stories need characters. Romances emphasize the growing relationship between the main characters, and the plot tells their story.

  2. Oh definitely, Ana. I don't mean to imply that I think it's black or white. But I do think that you can read a story and tell whether it's character or plot driven. And I think as writers, we tend to lean towards one or the other. That doesn't mean we ignore the other completely (at least I don't). I think it's more about our starting point.

  3. Interesting assessment by Martha Alderson. If I do any left/right brain 'test', I tend to come out slightly more left brain than right brain i.e. abouty 55%, 45% right. But, as far as my writing's concerned, I think it's the other way round (especially as I don't usually pre-plot!). My characters tend to drive the plot, but they often have to cope with external conflicts as well as internal, emotional ones.
    Great post, Jen!

  4. Nice post, Jennifer.

    I tend to get very 'attached' to my characters. Usually I come up with a plot/conflict/storyline first, but it's definitely the characters who ultimately drive it.

  5. Interesting take on reader motivations, from Martha AND from Jennifer. I find the most satisfying reads to be the ones that blend the logical and the emotional at all levels. People react to action based on who they are inside. Thanks for a good post. :)

  6. Debra, me too. I still have a character that I can't get out of my head, even though I already wrote about him! Scott, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I think you're right about how people react. That's what makes reading and writing so interesting.