A Story Is Driven By Characters

Hannibal Lecter Mads Character

Kill the plot-driven story with fire.

A plot-driven story sucks. It is not a story but a sequence of events. It is a terrible thing that will make you claw your hair out trying to make all the details fit while retaining reader interest.

I had a tough two weeks plotting my Long-Suffering Manuscript (LSM) because I was exercising too much control over the story instead of transferring that control over to my characters.

And it’s all because of something I call The Found Situation.

For example: a character suddenly finds him or herself in a Situation, and spends the rest of the story navigating that Situation instead of being an active participant. This is a popular formula in stories about institutions, such as students going to a special school, or stories where you are assigned a task and forced to follow instructions on how to reach the objective.

The latest plot of my LSM followed The Found Situation formula. Things went according to plan. Logic preceded emotions. Characters did X because without X, they couldn’t get to Y, and Y had to exist so that nothing went off the rails.

Boring.

A character does not just find him or herself in a situation.

They drive, run, walk, or crawl there.

When I removed the intricate step-by-step plotting and focused purely on characters (traits, motivations, goals, conflicts), the plot started coming together. The characters had more agency. They allowed themselves to make mistakes. Small details I’d been struggling to link together or use in future chapters suddenly became inconsequential.

Why was I doing all that extra work?

The plot is not where the heart of the story is.

Characters. It’s all about the characters.

Characters pull the trigger and stab you in the back.

A plot does not.

Characters are unpredictable and irrational.

A plot is not.

I’m currently plotting Chapter 9 out of (roughly) 28.

I’m now following characters, not calculations.

And it’s never been more face-meltingly fun.

——

Millie’s Note: What are your thoughts on plot-driven vs. character-driven? Which worked for you?

21 thoughts on “A Story Is Driven By Characters

  1. dekutree41 says:

    I have to laugh, because my novel started life as a “Found Situation” – there’s just something weirdly alluring about those kinds of premises – and then I spent two years doing every little thing I could do to wrangle control back into the hands of the protagonist. I kept running into the problem of trying to write a description of my book that didn’t read, “_____ finds herself somewhere she never expected to be,” or something along those lines. Finds herself! Gross! Long story short, she still “finds herself” in a crazy situation, but now it’s very clear that she wound up there because of choices she made – reckless choices, maybe, but choices that connect directly to her needs and goals. More importantly, once she gets out of said situation, she gradually wrests control of the narrative and starts taking it where she wants it to go.

    • Millie Ho says:

      I think that’s where the appeal of your Found Situation (if we can even call it that now) lies: the protagonist made a series of choices off-screen, which compels the audience to read on to find out what and why she did the things she did. I used to think that the protagonist should relinquish control after s/he gets out of the situation, but perhaps that so-called relinquishing of control is simply a lull before the control is placed back into their hands. I’m curious to hear more about your process!

  2. Peter Wells aka Countingducks says:

    I totally get the “character” driven story. I have two books out or nearly out, ( one published on April 10th. and both of them explore how faults and strengths in a persons character sometimes seek out those situations which expess them most

  3. Mary says:

    Hi Miss Millie – I can’t answer your question as it relates to writing. But what I can say is 1) I do like your use of a youtube short-video on your thought process and how you got there, 2) your driving straight toward your goal – this shows the dedication of trying, learning and incredible leap of growth as a writer. I’m intrigued and looking forward to continuing this journey with you.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Thanks for your comment, Mary. I document the process in the same way you document your drawings and paintings. As we both know, the feedback is invaluable. 🙂

  4. kvennarad says:

    “For example: a character suddenly finds him or herself in a Situation, and spends the rest of the story navigating that Situation instead of being an active participant.”

    THAT is precisely why I never fell under the spell (Ha!) of the Harry Potter canon.

    As always, it’s wonderful and fascinating to get an insight into how you write. Thank you.

    I generally start with a vague idea of a plot. I am usually surer of a character, or even of a passage of prose from the middle of the book, but the plot is always vague. Yes, however, I do plonk my protagonist down in a ‘situation’, for the simple reason that readers do like to be engaged by action right from the off. I always have in mind the place I would like the story to get to. The end-product that I aim for is to give the impression that the story is ‘all plot’; the zig and zag of the action, however, is more to do with how the characters are.

    I don’t know if I succeed. You have read ‘From My Cold, Undead Hand’ and ‘KWIREBOY vs VAMPIRE’ – do you think that’s what I did?

    • Millie Ho says:

      I think that’s exactly what you did. Both novels explored past events in the protagonists’ lives and brought clarity to their present actions. I like that both books started in medias res (the epicentre of chaos) before being reined back or thrown into a trajectory by the protagonists’ traits and goals. I took the vague plot approach when I edited the Nash Moor story, and that tripped me up the most. When did you become satisfied with your end product?

      • kvennarad says:

        That’s a bloody good question!

        Actually, in my experience there is a kind of break-through point that comes about two-thirds of the way through any writing project. That is the moment that I ‘see’ the finished product before it is actually there. It’s like having reached the knee of a graph describing the transition between a stable and an unstable state, and suddenly I go “Wheeeee!” and enjoy the accelerated ride. It is almost with a sense of regret, thereafter, that I put the final full-stop on the manuscript, rather than a sense of satisfaction. It strikes me that I do very little editing after that point; maybe I search the document for a few points of the characters’ usage, but usually I leave it be. A couple of ‘beta readers’ [ 🙂 ] then run through it, and if anything strikes them, they’ll tell me. After that it’ll go through the hands of a professional editor. Out of my three published novels, neither the editor nor the publisher has insisted on any major re-write; we wrangled like hell about one line of dialogue in one episode in ‘Lupa’, and I still think it should have been left in. Anyway, there is another little moment of satisfaction after the ms has been through the third-party editing process, and any typos and grammatical inconsistencies have been ironed out. But nothing – for me – beats that ‘wheeeee moment’ two thirds in. I know it’s silly.

        Incidentally, the person who edited my three published books is a stickler for the rules of grammar. I wonder what he would make of my argument in this article. http://mairibheag.com/2015/03/18/grammar-precision-why-hasnt-that-boat-sailed/ In fact I would be interested in your views too, as my intention in posting it was to open up a debate.

        I’m straying too far off topic now. Maybe I am just having one of those garrulous mornings.

  5. Axel Rider says:

    This idea has been sort of like the “theme of the month” in workshop in my program, and there’s no denying how important characters are. I think the best way to put it is:

    This event could happen to anyone, but how is it different to the specific person?

  6. aetherhouse says:

    I agree – a character should have agency and shouldn’t just be an observer in this “strange new world” or “strange circumstances” they encounter. However, that is not my definition of “plot driven.” For me, a plot driven story is simply one that is suspenseful, intense, and has a clear overarching purpose that gets achieved by the characters. To me, a character driven story is mostly just following a person around and being more interested in their thoughts/emotions/personality than anything particularly exciting or important happening from the outside. There’s no real sense of urgency in a character driven story.

    But this isn’t to say that a book can’t be BOTH. Ideally, a good book will have both a well designed story and interesting characters. I want my characters to have unique, vibrant personalities with clear reactions to situations. I want them to disagree with and love and hate and react to each other. I want them to step up to the plate and interact with the new world instead of just being a lens. I prefer to have them complete the plot because of their own morals, objectives, and goals rather than a ticking time bomb MacGuffin forcing them to finish it. But I also have clear plot beats that I want to hit. I want to keep momentum going and I never want the reader saying, “if the characters stepped away from this all right now, nothing would change. They don’t need to be here.”

    So, I find that I don’t really like to read books where “nothing really happens”, but I also hate books that are nothing more than a series of events driven by a really boring protagonist. And funny enough, I would define Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone under these terms as more of a character driven story, considering that nothing much exciting happens in it and Harry is mostly just there to be the audience’s window to Hogwarts and the other, more interesting people who inhabit it. 😉 Goblet of Fire was much more plot driven, as Harry was pushed into a bad situation with pretty much no say in the matter and had to see through all the story beats through to the end.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Your definition of the character-driven story seems more in line with navel-gazing character studies, which isn’t what I’m advocating here. My idea of a character-driven story is a story that is driven by the character’s actions instead of their introspection. If a plot-driven story is the maze the character must navigate, the character-driven story is the shortcut or unexpected trajectory taken when s/he takes control of the narrative.

      You bring up a good point about hitting clear plot beats. A character-driven story (both your definition and mine) will fall flat if there’s no big picture or grand goal s/he is trying to achieve. A series of events is boring, but a series of purposeful events is not.

  7. Matthew Kosak says:

    Nice post, and that dilemma about “transferring power” to your characters, is a puzzle do doubt, however, I believe that those issues can be strengths. It is also interesting about the protagonist or character driven vs the more plot driven stories…because in actuality I don’t believe that one is more complex or harder than the other. Not all plots are linear, where you have A went to B went to C…I recently analyzed Dan Brown’s Inferno because it has a plot that is basically deceptive plot style or a charade, and I didn’t realize it at the time, but then I went back and wanted to know how it worked. And I realized that it works by cognitive tricks, illusions and diversion. You think about C while B is happening.. I could dedicate a post to what I found as I think it’s interesting from a mental perspective of how it’s fooling with the mind. And Brown is a master of that, no doubt. But then you have a linear plot like Hemmingway’s “A farewell to Arms” and that’s a story you can imagine telling in a Parisian bar, with its this happened then that happened…but what is interesting is that it’s so protagonist driven, el tenente” if I remember, and it’s basically all first person narrative instead of second person for Brown. I’m not really comparing these as works, Hemmingway has depth and to me it is so far beyond that because it is emotionally driven, whereas a caper sci fi mystery like Brown’s is not emotional at all, you hardly learn anything about the characters. Every single utterance of Langdon is a plot clue just like the others, and the diversion is the cultural “tour” in the background. (Inferno definitely has many “Found Situations” elements in it, btw.) To the “there is no urgency in character driven stories” I’d say look at Tarrantino’s scripts, these are filled with neurotic characters who drive it, and will rip a plot to shreds if they are allowed.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Dan Brown’s main drawing point is his ability to impart knowledge about history, religion, and occasional scientific factoids without being pedantic. He makes them accessible to the layman using thrilling plots and, as you mentioned, a slew of cognitive tricks and diversions.

      I like that he knows what his readers are looking for: they’re not looking to be emotionally engaged as one would when they’re reading novels in other genres—they want alternative history and secret societies and plot twists that will make them flip several chapters back to check for clues. Tarantino also clearly knows what his audience wants, and delivers every time.

      It’s the author’s responsibility to meet expectations and exceed them by first clearly knowing who s/he is writing for, and that’s when the whole plot vs. character driven dance comes into play. I determined that I lean more towards the latter, so that’s what I’m focused on. Great points!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *