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Let Your Characters Run the Show: Character-Driven Stories

It’s opening night and you’ve got a full house; anticipation is running high. The curtains open, the spotlight shines onto the stage, and your main character walks out from the wings. What do they say to the audience? How do they grip their attention?

Character-driven stories can be a great narrative choice for any writer. Instead of focusing on external plot, character-driven stories explore the interior lives of characters, their emotions and interpersonal conflicts. A character’s voice can be just as gripping as any plot device, and their arcs often take the same shape as traditional plot structures. Read on to learn how your characters can get readers begging for an encore.


Let’s talk more about the advantages of character-driven stories. This approach lends itself particularly well to short stories, where you may not have as much time to develop a complex plot. By focusing on writing complex characters instead, you’re able to create a compelling narrative in a limited amount of time. Don’t think of character-driven stories as devoid of plot—instead, imagine your characters become the plot. Your “plot points” become significant moments or changes in your character’s life. Perhaps their way of thinking shifts suddenly, or their motivations or desires change. Character simply becomes a different way to approach plot. Character-driven stories are usually associated with the “pantser” technique (writing without an outline), but you can easily create an outline by swapping plot points for character arc shifts.

Understanding Your Character

In order to write a character-driven story, you need a main character. One of the first decisions you’ll need to make is, what perspective do I want to write in? This is part of your narrative strategy, or the specific way you’ll write your story. When it comes to characters, you’ll want to decide which point of view is best: first, second, or third person. Each point of view comes with its own benefits and challenges. First person puts your reader right into the mind of your character, while third person creates distance, and allows you to provide information your characters might not have. Second person is unique as it can be used in different ways: you can give your character, the “you,” more or less of an identity, depending on how closely you want your reader to relate to them. Feel free to try out the different point of views by writing a few short paragraphs using each of them. You can easily go back and change your mind.

Next, you’ll want to have a decent understanding of what drives your character. What are their motivations, their fears? I’ve heard many times in writing workshops that you should know, one, what does your character want, more than anything? and two, what would they do to get it? By limiting the amount of external plot, you have to rely on your character’s motivations to provide the forward momentum for your story. Don’t be afraid to write a big list of details about your character, like their favorite food or their worst childhood memory. Not everything will be relevant to your story, but getting a better feel for who your character is will be a big help as you let them run the show.

Now, what do you envision for your character’s emotional journey? Picture where you want them to begin, and where you want them to end up. What conclusions will they come to? What questions will they still have? You don’t need to have all the answers; that’s what the character’s journey is for!

The Struggle is Real

Once you get to know your characters more, you’re ready to throw them into the fire. Remember: you know what makes them tick, what can set them off, how to stress them out. So what are you waiting for? If you know that your character is deathly afraid of petting zoos, give them no choice but to go to their niece’s birthday party, which happens to be at—you guessed it—a petting zoo. Let everything go wrong for your character, and see how they deal with it. As readers, we love to see what happens in the chaos.

One main character isn’t always enough. Toss in another one for some fun interpersonal conflict! Conflict between two characters is a great way to increase tension and drive your story forward. You can also show off their personality differences by making them foils of each other (think Batman and the Joker). The most obvious way to show interpersonal conflict is through dialogue. Write your characters having an argument, or receiving bad news. Or perhaps one character is lying to another. They don’t always have to say exactly what they’re thinking or feeling, in fact, we rarely do. What nuances and complexities can you bring to your characters’ conversation?

Character-driven stories are most common in the literary fiction space, but they work well for any genre, and can be a unique and beneficial approach for even the most plot-heavy genres. If literary fiction isn’t your thing, try writing a psychological horror or dystopian fiction story using an emphasis on character. You might be surprised with what you end up with!


About the Author: Lindsey is currently working towards her BA in English and Creative Writing at Brandeis University. She loves writing short stories and has more recently taken an interest in writing poetry. She is also an Editor-in-Chief for her school literary magazine, Laurel Moon. You can usually find her reading, crocheting, watching Marvel movies, or bothering her cat, Sister. She hopes to be a writer and an editor in the future to continue to help others improve their work.


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