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.

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Advantages

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.

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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.