Listening To Your Characters


I’m a big fan of character-driven fiction. So much so, that I almost never write a plot-driven story. Normally, I create two characters and let them have their way with a very basic story idea rather than starting with a plot outline and moving my characters through it. That’s not to say that character-driven fiction is better than plot-driven fiction, because it isn’t. It’s different from but not better than. Both forms can produce great (and terrible) stories. Both forms have their strengths and weaknesses, their uses and misuses. Character-driven fiction allows me to explore in-depth the individual character and what makes her tick in a way plot-driven fiction doesn’t and that is ultimately what I enjoy—exploring personalities. Here are some basic hints for working in the character-driven fiction form.

What is Character-Driven Fiction?

Most literary fiction is character-driven. In a character-driven story, the events develop from the characters individual personalities and are the results of their reactions and interactions with other characters whom also have individual personalities. More than any other type of story, character-driven fiction requires deep characterization. The interest for the reader is in following around a character with whom they can somehow identify, sympathize, hate, or wonder about—even more so than the actual plot elements. In other words, the WHO is more important than the WHAT or HOW in character-driven fiction.

What’s important to remember with character-driven fiction is that it is the characters and their personal growth that drives the story and the reader. Here’s a pop culture reference as an example. The TV show Seinfeld made a great deal in its PR campaign that it was about “nothing,” but the reality of the show was that it was about the characters and their interactions with each other. Seinfeld was a character-driven sitcom. It was less important what the characters were doing than that they were doing it. What kept folks tuning in were the characters, not the action. In contrast, 24 is a plot-driven TV show—what happens is more important than who is doing it. Sure, Jack Bauer is the hero, he sacrifices it all to save the country, but Jack is a two dimensional hero and we already know that he will ultimately sacrifice and win. It is HOW he does this that keeps us tuned in each week, not who he is as an individual. These examples do over simplify, but serve to illustrate the underlying differenced between plot- and character-driven fiction.

How to Write Character-Driven Fiction

Character-driven short fiction requires the author have an intimate knowledge of the characters they are working with in the story. It isn’t good enough to know their gender, some physical traits, and a few details. You need to know each of the primary and secondary characters intimately, much like you know your best friend or your self, and in much greater detail than will actually appear in the story.

The character-driven story can be effectively written with a basic idea of where the story is going and without first constructing a plot outline. You, the writer, can discover what that character does each time you sit down to write because the character (not the plot) is central to the story you are creating. Some find this liberating while others will feel out of control and perhaps hate it.

Character-driven short fiction requires complex characters who actively react and interact with the events and other characters and grow (or not) because of those actions. If your characters are complex enough they can simply have tea and talk and your tale will be riveting. However, plot elements are usually required even in character-driven short fiction. Those plot elements normally develop as the story does—as opposed to being planned out before hand or set up in advance then adding characters to them.

Character-driven short fiction is dependent on complex characters. While Sherlock Holms is a wonderful character, he is not complex. He is pretty one-dimensional, it is the plot—the mystery—not Holmes deep character development that makes the story intriguing. In contrast, Winston in 1984 is a complex character. While the story of 1984—the plot—is also of great interest, it is Winston’s self discovery and growth that drives the story. In short, Holmes without a murder to solve would be boring and rather dull at best while Winston placed in any time period or situation would be interesting to readers. (Just for the record, I am not implying 1984 is better than Holmes or that mysteries are deficient to sci-fi stories. They are different genres, different types of stories with different purposes and goals.)

Potential Pitfalls

At Odds. Some times when you write Character-driven fiction you will find your self at odds with your characters. The best way to identify this is when you discover you are writing in circles. By that I mean despite the fact that you are producing pages of text the story isn’t going where you want it to go, where you had planned it to go, or, for that matter, anywhere at all.. Another sign that you are at odds with you characters is if you are stopped, i.e. not writing or producing “trash”. If you are at odds with your characters, allow them to lead you through the story. Forget the plot or the original idea and just allow the strong characters you have created to show you what they need to show you.

No Plot. Character sketches are not stories. They may be fun to read, but all stories have plots—even character-driven fiction.

Too much detail. Just because you know your character likes to eat pickles with ice cream, has two sisters who have different fathers, or worked at a 7-11, it may not be relevant to the story at hand. Know your characters, but also know what to include about them in the story. Do not burden your reader or your story with unimportant details just because you know them.

Know Your Characters

The advantage to this knowledge is that your characters will appear to be actual people and this will add a depth to your stories that cannot be faked. The problem with this is that often you will discover your characters are leading you someplace you hadn’t intended. They will often times have their own stories to tell and my advice is to listen to them. Allow them to lead you where ever it is they want to go. By listening to your characters, you may uncover stories you had no idea you were going to tell.

This is true of many of my characters, but the most striking example is my story “The Coal Miner’s Other Daughter” in Rode Hard and Put Away Wet (Suspect Thoughts Press, 2005). I was writing a cowboy story and unfortunately my main character, Jess, wanted nothing to do with being a cowboy. She did have a horse, but she wasn’t willing to tell the story I wanted her to tell; instead she told me her story. Luckily, the editor liked it enough to include it, and many folks who have read it have requested I turn it into a novel. What’s more, Aunt Bell, a minor character in the story, is often asked about.

All authors have egos and some have a keen sense of order and systems. For these authors character-driven fiction will be problematic. To be lead around by their characters will not make them happy. They will want to have more control over the universe they have created and plot-driven fiction may serve them better.

Character Building Exercises

Basic Character Sheets are great fun and they allow you to map out a character. The more you know, the better you will be able to listen to what she wants to tell you and to determine what she will do next. For example, not only do you want to know where she went to school but how she did, what her favorite and least favorite classes and teachers were. You may not include any of this information in your actual story, but in real life these things affect who we are and the choices we make and so they should also affect who your character is and the choices she makes.

Character sheets can be found in many forms all over the web and in writing text of all kinds. Review what is available and then create your own sheet. Here is a general list for a basic character sheet:

Physical traits: a description of your characters body including age, race, body size, hair color, tattoos, etc…
History: Birth to start of story
Life history details: work, school, hobbies, interests, family, friends, pets, etc…
Religion or lack of and/or life-ideology or lack of
Psychological make-up: Behavior traits and patterns
Key events time line: include both positive and negative events that shaped the character into who she is at the start of the story
Speech traits and patterns
Sexual history and tastes

Ten Things Make a list of 10 things your character: Hates, Loves, Wants, Has, Needs, Regrets, Envies, Cares About

Five Strengths/ Five Weaknesses: List your character’s top 5 strengths and weaknesses.

Character flaw and saving strength: What is the one flaw that directs and effects your character’s actions the most? And the one saving strength that allows her to pull herself out of bad spots?

What Would My Character Do?: Find a writing buddy and ask each other questions about the characters you are currently working on. All of the questions should start with “what would (CHARACTER’S NAME) do if…”

What makes you you? Do this exercise for yourself and a close friend and compare answers. Understanding how you see yourself and how others see you will give you a greater insight into characters. Answer the following questions about yourself and your friend: What makes you you? What makes your friend herself?What similarities do you share? What differenced do you have? Consider additional questions regarding situations your characters will face. How would you react if confronted with the situation and why? Use fact-based evidence from your life to support your answers. Now apply what you have learned to your characters.

Start with a character vs. with a Plot Element. Consider starting a story with a character instead of a plot element or outline. Build a character: name, physical descriptions (looks, age, race…) birthplace and date, family members and relationships, education, etc…As you build the character, her story will start to reveal itself. Once you have a firm idea of WHO she is, start writing the story you want to tell—or more correctly, the story she wants to tell through you.

Start with a basic plot idea: Two characters will meet at a bar and hook up …
Your two characters need to be complex because your plot isn’t. (This doesn’t mean your plot won’t become complex or that a plot-driven story cannot have complex characters.) Additional plot elements will arise from the characters individual personalities.

Now build your characters: What plot elements are revealing themselves from your characters? How do the individual personalities affect the story line? How would the story change if you inserted a different character in place of one of the current characters?

In contrast: Start with a complex story idea in which you can drop less complex characters and allow the plot to carry the bulk of the story.

Complex Plot: Two married women fall in love with each other in a right-wing, Christian fundamentalist community.

Note how this brief plot description is more exciting than the one above. Even before we add the characters it is clear the plot is central to the story. Who the women as individuals are will add depth but the plot itself could work with less complex characters.

Beware neither of these approaches is exclusive. The very best story combines a complex plot and complex characters.


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NEXT TIME: Conferences: Act Now and Benefit Later

Amie M. Evans
February 2008

“Two Girls Kissing: Writing Lesbian Literary Erotica” © 2008 Amie M. Evans. All rights reserved.

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