I found this photo on Flickr. Entitled “The Problem with Character-Driven Stories,” the photo had an amusing story to go along with it.
As the story goes, there was a writer who was auditioning characters for her next novel. Characters lined up all the way out the writer’s waiting room and around the corner. And most of them, unfortunately, were about the same as all the others. Here’s an example that exemplifies what I’m talking about:
A character named Jean entered, sat down.
“Okay, then, Jean,” said the writer. “Tell me about yourself.”
“I’m 24. I have medium-long mousey-blonde hair. I drink vodka and Coke. I’m pretty boring.”
“And you’d like to be in a story?”
“Any particular subject matter?”
“Well, lost love is sorta done to death, I think. Epiphanies are always good. Some life-changing event, basically.”
“Changing your life from boring to interesting?”
“If you could.”
“Well, I do like character-driven stories, but you really don’t seem to be… well… driving this.”
Jean shrugged. The author continued.
“You don’t have any obsessions, don’t appear to have ever been involved with anyone, aren’t particularly religious. I just really fail to see how I can make a plot from that.”
They went on like that, talked about Jean’s smoking and drinking habits—she didn’t have any and had even made up the part about vodka and Coke. Talked about her friends—again, didn’t have any. Talked about her fluffy, white dog that she walks in the evenings, until it came out that Jean had imagined the dog in order to appear more interesting.
“I’m sorry, Jean,” the writer said. “I really don’t see how we can go anywhere with this. Feel free to come by again once you’ve got a life.”
“Well,” said Jean, “I was rather hoping you’d give me one.”
It’s all in how you tell it
Now, I’ve modified that story slightly, because I think it demonstrates a common misconception about character and what drives character stories, and I wanted to focus on that misconception.
There’s a myth among writers that “interesting” characters make for a compelling story. And that’s not exactly true. Because usually what they mean by “interesting” is characters with family problems or psychological dysfunctions or bizzarre quirks that make them so unlike normal, average, real people. Indeed, many wonderful stories feature such characters. But that’s not what makes those stories compelling.
At core, what makes a story compelling is how a character perceives her needs, and how she seeks to meet those needs. This principle works hand-in-hand with the First Law of Character Action:
And everyone has needs. These needs motivate the character, and how she perceives them determines how she will interact with the world around her. Even if a person is living in complete comfort, with all her physical and emotional needs met, she still has a need to grow, to become something more than she already is. And she might, for example, turn to study, or perhaps to a dangerous hobby, or maybe she’ll turn in on herself and sink into depression because her needs aren’t being met. Or she may audition for a part in an author’s upcoming novel.
But Jean above isn’t living in complete comfort. For example, she has no friends. Not even a dog to hang out with. Everyone needs friends, because having friends helps us meet several core human needs.
So yeah, maybe Jean thinks her life is boring, and maybe she thinks she needs a writer to give her some qualities that someone would want to read about. But as a character, it’s not her job to figure out what makes a compelling story. That’s her author’s job. And the character author will ask, “Why does she want a life? What needs is she pursuing? And what can I do to her in order to exacerbate those needs and bring them to crisis, in order to make a more interesting story?”
Yes, character authors are cruel beyond words. We have to be. It’s our job.
In all the dark places you must walk
“May the Gods stand between you and harm in all the dark places you must walk.” That’s an ancient Egyptian blessing, appropriate to speaking of character arc, which is the second core component of a character story. This blessing is appropriate, because a character arc is all about bringing your character through her own personal hell.
Why? Because of the Second Law of Character Action:
And character change is what makes a character arc. A character arc takes shape when a character changes in how she perceives her reality. The reality itself doesn’t change; only the character’s perception of reality changes.
Jean’s perception of her reality will determine her thought process, what choices she makes, what actions she takes, and how she will rationalize these decisions. And as these change, they’ll shape her story.
Why your character’s changing perception is so important, the reason may not be immediately obvious, because the reason is fairly complex, involving the nature of story conflict and how it interacts with the psychology of your characters. I don’t have space to go into it in this article (though I am going into it in Character Fiction 101). Suffice it to say that if you can convince your character to change the way she thinks about her world, you will be well on your way to plotting out a character arc.
These two laws, I believe, comprise the fundamental aspects of a character story, because they define character motivation and character arc. Most authors will add plot that doesn’t result in character change, overarching themes and moods, a favorite setting or character trait. An author might write a story starring a teenage girl, because she’s writing her story to be read by teenage girls. Or she might write a story that includes a bigger-than-life villain who places the hero in mortal danger, because she’s writing a suspense novel. Suspense novels are not necessarily character stories, but there’s no conceptual reason why your suspense novel couldn’t include character change. Plenty of plot-based, suspense TV shows certainly try to do character arcs, some more successfully than others. And there’s usually a character-arc component to romantic suspense, because the romance usually involves character change.
Some authors go on at length dwelling on their characters through slow sections of the story in order to “build” the characters. This is unnecessary, and I myself prefer stories that reveal character through compelling conflict. Scenes that stop the story from moving forward, in order to let the characters talk abstract philosophy or political ideology, not so interesting (unless the discussion is effecting a compelling story conflict). Even so, a character story, by my definition, can take either path.
A simple definition: To write a character story, start with your character’s perceived need, and set about changing how your character repsonds to that need.