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The Character Driven Story

I’ve written some plot driven books.

I’m not ashamed nor proud of it, a lot of best sellers are plot driven and I read a lot of them too. Plot driven books are sometimes deemed a failing of ‘genre’ writing. But it doesn’t have to be the case. Just like ‘literary’ writing doesn’t need to be bereft of plot. I think the best stories combine strong characters with clear motivations in a really cool plot.

Why is a plot driven book often considered a lesser book? The answer is fairly simple. Because readers want to care about characters and the characters’ struggles. A cool premise can only take you so far.

So what does a character driven story mean? It’s a story where the character is driving action that has agency on the outcome.

Fancy word alert: Agency.

I use it here because it gets thrown around a lot in some literary circles. And I didn’t quite ‘get it’ at first. It was explained to me in this way: When considering agency think James Bond, he’s an agent. He shoots people and does daring things. He impacts the outcome of world peace. He does important stuff. He has agency—an agent of change.

So your characters need agency over the story. And for that agency to be believable, they need motivation for why they do things. For motivations to be believable, your characters need back story, a history. And for a history to be authentic there needs to be depth, a three dimensionality to it. In short, the characters need to be well developed. Character driven novels have well developed characters that act based on their own deep-ceded motivations and belief systems.

In a plot driven novel often times the characters are reviewed as being cardboard, cliché, cookie-cutter, two dimensional.

Okay, so how do you know you’re headed in the right direction? Read the first scene of your novel. What happens in the scene that follows? Is the character driving the action? Or is the scene a direct result of the character’s actions in the prior scene? Does it fit with their deeply held beliefs based on their upbringing and history? That’s character driven.

If they are being acted upon. Stuff is happening to them and they’re running away or being helped by others without your protagonist having any real impact. That’s plot driven.

Character motivation is a central building block to good storytelling. Know all of your characters’ motivations, stay true to them, and then create conflict by setting them at odds with one another. Your reader will sympathize with everyone—even the bad guys—will invest in them, and care what happens next.

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