I’m going to let you in on a secret. All novels are character-driven. This is true no matter your genre. And today we’re going to talk about why finding your character’s drive will impact the health and greatness of your novel.
There’s a lot of hype about plot-driven vs. character-driven novels.
Plot-driven novels are stereotyped as fast-moving thrillers and other action/adventure types. This is because they often focus on what’s happening in the outer world–what’s going on outside the character–and not so much on the life of the character himself.
Another stereotype states that character-driven novels are of the literary variety. This is because they often focus on the character’s interior world–their thoughts and feelings–with little going on in the character’s outer world.
But have you ever left a thriller feeling empty and unmoved? Have you ever left a literary-type novel feeling bored to tears because nothing happened?
This is because great novels need a healthy balance. They must be both plot- and character-driven.
This is all well and good. Maybe it’s even something you’ve heard before, but how do you go about doing it?
Determine What’s at the Heart of Your Character
First, ask yourself these questions:
- What are the character’s core values? What are the things he holds so dear that he would never think to name them because to him, they should be a universal desire? List two to five values. If some of them conflict, all the better! I love checking out of this list of common core values to get a jumpstart.
- What is the lie that your character believes? Where did that lie come from? And how does it affect her daily life? Does your character think she’s fat? Maybe this lie comes from an unkind mother’s cruel comments, which now affects how she interacts with potential partners.
- What seed of yourself are you planting in this character? To create true depth and emotion, some aspect of you must be reflected in the character. This does not mean that you are your character or that his or her story is yours, only that they character’s feelings or experience in some small way resonates with your own.
In Writing 21st Century Fiction: High-Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling, Donald Mass talks about what makes a breakout novel.
Deconstruct out-of-category novels and certain common factors emerge: characters we immediately care about, unique worlds, universal human experiences, high tension, plot layers… But there’s also a strong X factor: fiction is personal, meaning that it directly reflects the author’s own experience.
Growing up as the daughter of a preacher and a teacher at my high school, I had all eyes on me. When I was late to school the secretary would phone up to my mom before I could reach her after homeroom. Because of the fishbowl effect, I felt like I had to be perfect. It was a horrible lie that I believed and I ran myself ragged–and was not always the nicest person–while trying to achieve it.
Though by now, I know better, that past experience still resonates with me. So for my first novel, Sketchy Tacos, my protagonist Mila struggles with trying to achieve perfection. Her reasons are totally different from mine (love you Mom!) and how she goes about trying and failing are completely different too. But because I shared a small part of myself with her story (I hope) it resonates with truth.
And keep in mind, that if it’s something you struggled with, likely others have too.
Connecting the Inner-Life of Your Character to the Plot
So now you’ve got your insides sorted, how do you keep it from moving to slow and boring the readers?
This is where plot comes in. But notice, that we first develop the character and then we develop the plot. Why is this? Because the character is at the heart of the story. The exterior circumstances and plot points must spring from the values and goals of your character. Each part of the plot must be in line with the character’s interior life–either by confirming what he knows to be true or pushing him to grow past his current beliefs.
To get started, ask yourself these questions:
- What are your character’s goals? This could be in the course of this novel or in life. How are those goals in alignment with their values? How can they conflict?
- What actions will your character need to take to accomplish those goals? Do they work for or against the lie that your character believes?
- What outer circumstance will make your character reexamine his values or lie? Make it happen.
- What’s the one thing your character has vowed never to do? Now give her no other option than to do it. How does it change the way she thinks and believes?
From a Structure Point of View
Last week we talked about the structure of your novel. Those three main turning points are three huge plot points that move your story along. Examine each of those points and determine how you can make those actions or circumstances character-driven.
- How did the characters actions and behaviors drive them to these points?
- How are their reactions colored by their values and lies?
The Delicate Balance of Plot- and Character-Driven Novels
The balance needed for each novel will be different and will largely depend on your genre. If you are writing action-packed thrillers, you’re not surprisingly going to have a heavier reliance on plot than, say a sweet small-town romance. But there are exceptions to every rule (see Susan May Warren’s Christiansen Family series for a small-town romance with a driving plot), and these tend stand out from the pack. So if you’re writing an action, try giving it an extra shot of deep character and see where that gets you.
Want to see a genre with a strong balance of both? Check out Romantic Suspense. I am a plot-lover by nature, so my personal preferences tend to veer away from romance (super unfortunate as it is the BIGGEST market). The will-they-won’t-they doesn’t have me sitting on the edge of my seat since I know they will. However, I’m a BIG fan of romantic suspense because the question becomes will-they-won’t-they and who’s going to get shot?
You can grab a free copy of one of my all-time favorites–Submerged by Danni Pettrey– and check out how a balance makes all the difference.
Ready to Apply This to Your Novels?
Grab my free step-by-step guide to novel creation. The From Novice to Novelist Workbook helps you balance plot and character from idea to outline. But it doesn’t stop there, get stellar tips on writing, goal-setting, and editing so that by the end of the workbook, you don’t have just a rough draft, you have a draft that’s ready for the next step… whatever that is in your publishing journey!
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