Dog-Eared Corner - 1.3: Character-Driven Story
(Doesn’t Mean Plotless)
Character-driven is a term we get a lot when talking about story—typically contrasted with plot-driven. Too often writers think character-driven narratives need to be plotless, that they consist only of deep explorations into internal lives, and unrealized emotions … where nothing actually happens. Such misconceptions can both hurt a writer’s work and turn readers from the very idea of character-driven stories.
So what does character-driven really mean?
A character-driven narrative is a product of character choices and the stakes and obstacles defined by character values
Let’s explore this.
The most effective character-driven stories I’ve read were all packed with plot. But their events always involve characters choices. These choices can initiate turns in the story or react to them. The choice can even be to do nothing, because that too is a choice. What matters is there’s interaction, give-and-take, between a protagonist’s inner self and the outside universe.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Well, OF COURSE the protagonist makes choices. How’s that different from every story ever told?
But the question is, what do we mean by choice? This is where many seem to stumble. A character choice is a choice between potential outcomes, rather than between actions.
EXAMPLE: Say you’re walking one cold winter night through the forest, and you come upon a pack of hungry wolves. You think: Well, I could run, or I could fight. This is a choice between actions. Either way, the possible outcomes are the same: you escape the wolves or get eaten. Your choice is no more than your preferred method.
But say you climb a tree instead, and the wolves camp out beneath you, waiting for you to come down. You’re safe for now, but you’re also cold. If you wait them out, you’ll probably freeze to death; if you climb down and try to get away, you might get eaten. Now you have to weigh your options, you have to reflect on who you are in order to decide. Are you patient? Are you a coward? Are you confident? Your choice is informed by the kind of person you, and in turn, informs us (the readers).
Reading a story filled with choices between actions (rather than potential outcomes) is like watching a rag doll caught in an ocean storm. It could be exciting, but you never feel it could have gone any other way.
Stakes and Obstacles
The other element of character-driven story is the nature of its conflicts. That is to say, its obstacles and stakes.
In plot-driven stories, the obstacles are simply barriers between the protagonist and their goal. The stakes can be measured by the size of these barriers.
In character-driven stories the obstacles don’t simply stand between the protagonist and their goal, they also interfere with the protagonist’s ability to act. They are tailor-made to upset a character’s capacity to even make the choices they’re presented with.
The same could be said of the stakes. The risks a character takes to achieve their goal doesn’t just increase with the size of the obstacles, they challenge the character’s very identity, threatening—or even succeeding—to change who they are as a person.
Okay. So there you have it. The real difference between character-driven and plot-driven stories. What’s that? You want an example? Yeah, sure. Okay.
(Sir Bingo Slays the Dragon)
The brave knight, Sir Bingo, goes on a quest to kill the dragon, Gurt, who destroyed his village and killed his family. Overcoming many hardships, Bingo tracks down the Gurt and defeats her in an epic battle. (That’s right, dragon can be women.)
This here is the quintessential plot-driven narrative. We have protagonist who faces a number of challenges as he works toward achieving his objective. And that’s fine. Motivated character. Goal. Conflicts. These are all you need to craft an excellent story. But it isn’t character-driven.
Through his journey, Sir Bingo comes to realize his quest for vengeance is the only connection he has to the loved ones he had lost. Ending it would cut all ties to his old life. So even as it nears completion, he doesn’t know if he can bring himself to complete it. And when finally faces Gurt, to achieve his goal, he must overcome not only the physical challenges of her claws, fire and razor teeth, but the emotional challenge of putting the past behind him.
Rather than having a character who is simply set onto his path by an arbitrary, plot-necessary goal (slay the dragon to avenge family) we get a character who must actively choose to continue toward his goal at every turn. Instead of presenting him with binary action-choices (live/die, run/fight), his quest offers multi-faceted outcome-choices (how does he move on with his life? Would completing his quest be like killing his family all over again?) The obstacles don’t just stand between him and his goal, but actually hinder him from making the choice pursue it. And the stakes are personal to him because of who he is and how the quest relates to him specifically.
Faced with such challenges, each decision Sir Bingo makes reveals aspects of his character. Given enough obstacles, might see his whole personality shaped from the plot itself. Without indulging in long ruminations on his emotional state.
You see? Character-driven.
Here are a few things to watch out for when attempting a character-driven story.
You want to STOP your story from being character-driven? This is probably your best bet. Nothing dissolves character agency faster than having things happen for no reason at all.
You’ve probably heard the Pixar rule for coincidences by now: “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” This is generally a good rule to be sure, but I’d argue it’s only partially true. Saving a character by coincidence is bad good practice. Ask anyone. But even using coincidence to challenge your characters can give you character-agency issues. Coincidental obstacles equal impersonal obstacles; once or twice may be all right, but using them too often makes who the events are happening to less important to the story. Without give-and-take between protagonist and narrative, the story could as well be about anyone. (i.e. it becomes plot-driven.)
I’ve read a number of stories where characters face a challenge, overcome it and move one, then face a different challenge, overcome it and move on, then face a different challenge, over come it and move one then… And so on. Each obstacle is forgotten the moment its vanquished. The problem here is your obstacles have little to no impact on the protagonist’s goals, so the protagonist’s choices themselves are never challenged.
In character-driven stories, the obstacles should help to maintain a cohesiveness through the narrative. Previous obstacles inform future events. Of course, you can throw a surprise wrench in the gears, here and there, but if the plot isn’t a cohesive entity, neither is the character.
This is one of the easiest pitfalls to fall into. Like many writer’s I’m a plotter. I think it’s important to have compelling, emotionally impactful events to draw feeling from the reader, and the best way to do this is to plan them. The problem is that complex, interesting characters don’t always want to follow the path you set for them. And characters who blindly obey their plots can easily feel blank and same-y to the reader.
The best way around this, I find, is not to plot by coming up with cool or exciting events, but to think of situations that will challenge particular characters. Try to stump them. See what avenues they can work out to get around your best efforts. If you want to give your character certain personality traits, throw a challenge in front of them where that trait would be a surprising, but inevitable response.
And that’s all I’ve got on character-driven narratives. Remember, your stories don’t need to be character-driven, to be good. But they don’t need to be plotless to be character-driven!