She, He, They: The Character-Driven Story

As I stated in my last post, I believe that all (good) stories are character-driven. Let’s discuss.

At The Heart of All Stories

When you pick up a novel, how long does it take before you commit to reading it all the way through? I’m no longer feeling that I have to slog through something that bores me, so for me, I give a novel about thirty pages. And in those thirty pages, what am I looking for?

Well, a number of things. I want to be drawn in to the concept. I easily tire of bad language/poorly written stories. I like to be able to picture the world, and I don’t want something to be paced either too slowly or too quickly. But for me, the essential element in a good story is – can I relate to the character?

How Do We Build Characters?

One of my story vision boards – the largest picture is my character.

There are as many ways for writers to build a character as there are ways to build a plot. Search the internet and you can find character questionnaires, character backstory builders, character psychological analyses, character dramatic studies, character emotional mind-maps. I’ve conducted day-long workshops on character, and I’ve probably tried every one of the possible architectures, including hands-on processes like crafting a character scrapbook and making a character vision board.

All this to say: characters should be as humanly-relatable as possible, and therefore are just as complex.

Of course, you and I and everyone on the planet develops our “character” with every passing second we’re on this earth. For a writer, it’s impossible to create that kind of complexity, so how in the world do we writers manage to create characters that most of us would recognize the instant we met them?

Jay Gatsby. But you already knew that, right?

If you don’t believe me, how about Jay Gatsby? Or Starr Carter? Katniss Everdeen? Harry Potter (or any one of the multitude of characters in his world)? Aria Stark? I could go on…

Back To The Heart, Again…

While there are many time-consuming exercises that writers can employ – and, trust me, I’ve done them all – I think great characters can be boiled down to a few key elements, all centered around a single, driving human concept: emotion. I talked a bit about this in a past post, but I’m going to talk a lot more about this emotional driver that I believe is at the heart of all good stories.

But let’s break the elements of the emotional driver down. Here are those that I think are crucial for writers to address when it comes to characters:

  • Backstory
  • Voice
  • Internal desire
  • External goal
  • Stakes

I’m going to discuss each of these over the next few posts, and each deserves its own moment in the spotlight. Indeed, each of these is so powerful a tool for writers to understand that you can find a craft book for every one, as you’ll see.

Please stay tuned!

One Response to “She, He, They: The Character-Driven Story”

  1. Margaret McManis

    Janet,
    Your picture on your vision board of the Last True Knight is also on my Pinterest page as the father of my Santiago Knight, Martin vasquez de Arce. My novel is historical time travel about this Spanish knight who was also the favorite reader to Queen Isabella. The book revolves around 4 preteens from two time periods and continents who are tasked by the knight to return stolen holy relics to their rightful cathedrals. The Relic Hunters and the Santiago Cross combines pilgrimages, holy relics, corrupt bishops withe the main characters quest to accomplish the task and find his way back home.
    Will have to read your medieval novel as I am doing research in that time period. The book will also have an glossary in the back entitled ‘Fantastic Relics and Where to Find Them.’

    Reply

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