Which is better: a plot-driven story, or a character-driven story?
It’s obvious, right? We want both! The best stories keep us chasing our favorite character through more twists and turns than a roller coaster ride. But if you had to choose one aspect, plot or character, which would you choose?
I’d choose character. If the protagonist is multidimensional and easy to identify with, then I’ll happily read three hundred pages of slow plot (as in ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, one of my all-time favorite books). Of course, readers today want stories with more action—on the first page, if possible! But not even a thriller or suspense novel can skimp on the characters. If we don’t care about the protagonist, why would we care about the plot? When the character’s values are conflicted and she has to choose between two things she cares about, we must sympathize with her to be invested in the story.
Last week Brian Kell blogged about character development, and I thought about how I develop my characters. I discussed this a little during my novel-planning series, but not in much detail. Since I posted this link in Brian’s comments, I might as well post it here as well: the Fiction Writer’s Character Chart-–the same chart I fill out for all my main characters.
I know some people begin novels with little or no outlining. They say too much pre-plotting will ruin the book’s surprises, and they’ll be too bored to actually write it. I can understand this; after my first novel, I cut back on the amount of outlining I did for my second novel.
But I didn’t cut back on character development. I filled out this insanely long character chart for my two main characters, and I might even go back and use it for my secondary characters. I just can’t start a book without at least knowing my protag first.
Maybe you look at this character chart and think, “Favorite color? Will my story really fall apart if I don’t know my protag’s favorite color??”
No, of course not. Don’t start at the top of the chart, where it requests favorites and habits and other tidbits that won’t really affect the plot one way or another. Instead, skip down to the sections on attitude, personality, and goals. You’ll find questions like: Character’s greatest fear? The worst thing that could happen to her? Biggest vulnerability? How does she plan to accomplish her goals? Etc, etc.
These aren’t easy questions… unless you pick random answers (“Blue! Spiders! Earthquake! Heel! By cheating!”). The answers are only useful if they’re relevant to your plot. Tackle one question at a time, and really think about how the answer will affect your story. I love brainstorming for the character chart, because it gives me ideas for the plot. For example, while charting Blaine for THE RIVER’S EDGE, I struggled to figure out his biggest regret. But when the answer finally came to me, then I knew his entire backstory. I immediately thought of the scene when he shares that regret with Kari. So I wasn’t just developing characters—I was also developing plot.
And the more answers you get, the easier it will be to answer the remaining questions—you’ll automatically know what makes sense for your character. Once you determine your character’s personality, you can guess her habits and favorite things. Kari’s favorite color is gray because it reminds her of the river; her least favorite color is pink because she thinks it’s too girly. Randomly picking gray would mean nothing without the reasoning. If you can’t think of a logical answer to a question, leave it blank. Maybe the answer will come to you during the first draft.
Speaking of the first draft, it will be so much easier to write it if you know your character! You can predict what the protag will do or say in any situation. As a result, the words will flow, and the story will be engaging instead of flat.
I’m not saying you have to fill out this chart in order to have a character-driven story; I’m just saying it works for me. When I get feedback from critique partners or test readers, their best praise is always reserved for the characters (and their criticism is for the plot!). It’s not the chart itself that helps me create seemingly real characters—it’s the brainstorming and thought process I put into it. So find a method that works for you and make those heroic but flawed characters. Your test readers will let you know whether or not you succeeded.
I’d love to hear any thoughts on character development. Do you use character charts or some other method? Do you think it’s hard to develop characters or do you enjoy it?
Have a great week, everyone!