Character-Driven: how characters determine your plot

computerIf you visit my blog regularly, or semi-regularly, you’ve probably heard me mention before that good fiction is character-driven. That’s something I firmly believe, ever since reading Stephen King’s book On Writing. I have never started writing with a developed plot, and the one time I’ve outlined, I developed that outline thinking about the characters, who they were, and how they would respond to the crises they face.

Plot is important, of course. Always will be. But the thing is, with the exception maybe of some subgenres of crime fiction (the crimes Hercule Poirot solves, for instance, aren’t really dependent on his personality), characters drive, shape, and change the plot you think you’re going to write until you can hardly recognize it.

Suppose your novel is about a woman with a career that’s crashing and burning and a husband who’s cheating on her; she’s trying to pick up the pieces. Great. That’s a workable concept for a romance novel, perhaps, or a women’s fiction novel, but it’s not a plot.  A plot involves answering a lot of questions that concept raises. (And please, forgive me, romance fans, if that sounds awful. I don’t read or write romance; that’s just something that came to my head.)

Will she quit her job, or try to shoulder through? Might this be a chance to pursue an entirely different career based on lifelong dreams she’s had? Is it worth trying to salvage a relationship with her husband? Will she divorce him? Will he choose the mistress, maybe, and start a life with her?

All these are not so much decisions left to the author as they are choices the characters have to make, and those decisions will be influenced by lots of factors that will hold greater or lesser weight depending on who those characters are. Does the husband feel any kind of remorse? Does he consider the affair a mistake, or the marriage? Are there kids involved, and how does he feel about them? How involved is he in their lives? How prideful is his wife? Is she the kind of person who would leave him or have her own affair to hurt him in kind? What’s the basis of their relationship?

This is why you can write without having a formulated plot. You can figure that out as you go…. you just might have to rewrite or cut or add a lot of things (see my post about what to expect when you write without an outline). What you MUST have before you outline or write is some knowledge of your characters. You have to know your characters as people. You have to know what their dreams and desires are, and what they fear. You have to know what their approach to life is, and how they view its challenges. You have to know their strengths and their flaws. You see, these are the things that develop your plot. These are the things that let you know, when that protagonist finds out her husband’s cheated on her, how she’ll react in a way that rings true, because it’s real. It’s how she, as the person she is, would confront that obstacle.

Anyway, I hope that makes some kind of sense. It’s something I feel I’ve hinted at and referred to in previous posts without really breaking it down in this way: characterization and plot should work together, as I claimed in a different post back in December, because you can’t have an interesting plot without interesting characters. What’s your approach to characterization? How do you get to know your characters?

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11 responses to “Character-Driven: how characters determine your plot

  1. I always try to picture bumping into a character on a busy street in New York. If they do something outlandish (by New York standards), then I know I’ve written a character that couldn’t really exist and must be changed.

    • hahaha!!! that’s amazing! 🙂 I’ve visited New York twice, and liked it to visit, but I have to say, I’m a New Orleans girl, and I know what people say about them yankees….

  2. I couldn’t agree more with your point about really knowing your characters – I have found that it isn’t until the third or fourth rewrite that some characters become crystal clear and I say to myself – OMG -she would not say that or do that the way I wrote it. Kowing the characters is absolutely key for me -get to know them all, put them on the page together and let the fun times roll.

  3. I might go off someone I know or briefly met in the past. Most of the time though, It’s a strong sense of emotion that’ll spark a situation and a character together. From there I just add and stir together realistic qualities,quarks, and O.C.D.s until I know that person. 🙂
    Good post, I’ve heard a lot about Stephen King’s book “On Writing” but have not read it yet. I’ll have to change this soon.

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  7. schillingklaus

    I deprecate character-driven fiction, and no King or emperor or dictator or whatever will ever be able to change my taste.
    Idea-driven fiction is my one way to go, both as a reader and a writer.

    • No problem with preferring other kinds of fiction. I know that I don’t read the current stuff in vogue–vampires and romance and such–that is character driven. Idea-driven’s just another way to go. I find it’s tougher for me to make my characters feel “right” and human when I focus on an idea. Idea-driven fiction It’s fiction that reads and feels differently. My favorite novel of all time is Les Miserables, and it’s pretty idea driven 🙂 Honestly, I’ve never read King’s fiction so I have no idea if I would like it. I’ve just found that his approach to writing (outlined in “On Writing” works for me most of the time.

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