Episode 7: Character-Driven Writing Style
In episode 7 we take a hard look at character-driven writing styles and see how they compare to plot-driven writing styles. We also examine how to write with a character focus and decide if you should or not.
You can listen to the episode right here. The transcription is below the player. Feel free to add your comments using the comment section below.
Episode 7 Transcript
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00:00 [JT Pledger] Welcome to Freebie Friday! This is episode number 7 and today I want to talk to you about character-driven plotlines, or character-driven writing. We’re gonna find out what exactly it is and how to write this way, so stick around.
00:43 In case you don’t know, there are two generally accepted methods of writing. There is the character-driven writing style and the story-driven writing style, or plot-driven. Umm…first off we need to define what they are, how they’re different.
Character-Driven Vs. Story-Driven
01:08 Character-driven is a more freeform, creative thinking style of writing. It focuses on the characters, obviously, but it focuses on the character’s emotions or their imagination, and the conflicts and the struggles that the characters face. And the growth that they go through in the course of the story is usually 80 to 90% internal. So it’s things that actually happen to the character, not a result of being in the environment that the character is in.
01:52 On the other hand, the plot-driven, or story-driven, writing style is usually more factual based. And I don’t mean like a biography or a true story, but the environment in the world that the story takes place in is more acceptable, acknowledged by the reader. You know, both styles can be science fiction, for example, but the world in a plot-driven story is more readily accepted by the reader as, “Okay, I can see that” you know? “It’s…it’s like another earth, or it is earth.” but the, the characters go through struggles that are more external.
02:40 And this means that they have things happen around them that they have to deal with. But when you think about this style of writing you have to imagine that whatever it is that’s going on that the character is struggling with or fighting through, it happened whether that character was there or not.
Example of Character Struggle
03:04 So, as an example, a divorce. A divorce would be a character-driven style because it is a conflict. An emotional battle as well as a physical one that the character is going through, you know? Whereas a bomb going off in a mall somewhere wouldn’t necessarily affect your main character. If your main character wasn’t even in that town but the bomb is still there and it’s still gonna go off. So when you think of the two story, or writing, styles that are accepted, those are the main differences.
03:49 So how do we write a character-driven story? Umm, the easiest way is to get to know character-driven storylines and understand what they are. Read a lot of the character-driven books that are out there. A few examples would be like the classics, Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby. Also, another great one to read if you’re wanting to learn this style is The Joy Luck Club. The seven characters in there are all masterfully created and they all have their own struggles and growth to go through. And the way that it’s done, it really sets apart this style of writing versus the plot-driven, or story-driven, style.
04:46 So when you sit down to write a character-driven storyline, you want to focus on a microscopic view of your characters, you know? I always stress that you want to make your characters real people to the reader. You want them to be believable, and this should go into any style of writing, but in a character-driven, we need this. It has to happen.
Love or Hate, We Strive for Emotions
05:12 You need to be able to convey to your reader why they need to love this character or hate them. It can’t just be an “Oh, I don’t really care what happens to them either way.” Because then you’re not gonna be able to draw them into the story. Since your story revolves around this character, if the reader isn’t fully engaged with this character, the rest of the story is gonna fall apart.
05:37 Because the rest of the story really is flat. In most character-driven books, the external things that happen are 2-dimensional and they don’t really mean much. There isn’t a lot of detail and description to draw you into the world. The focus then is to draw you into the character and one way you do this is to use the cause and effect. And you just use it on the character instead of the environment. But when there is a choice to be made you want your character to have to make that choice. It doesn’t always have to be a life and death situation. These can be small struggles. You know? Ummm…and they don’t need to always make the right choice.
No one Likes Perfection
06:29 Have your characters make wrong choices. Have them have the consequences of those wrong choices this will make them imperfect and it’ll make them more relatable to the reader. Not everybody makes the right choice all the time, so your character shouldn’t either, you know? You want to also make sure that when you’re writing this way that you do have external threats. Like I said in the beginning, it’s only about 80 to 90% of these struggles and…and growth that the character goes through is internal.
07:06 There has to be something external. And something has to be worthwhile for the character to even be in the position that they’re in. Now, writing a story with your main character who never leaves the sofa…probably not going to be the greatest story. You need to get them out into the world. As flat as it needs to be, or is, but make them interact with other people in the environment around them. And…and give them little struggles that are more story-driven just to kind of tie everything together.
07:46 A good example of this, if you haven’t read it I recommend that you do, Stephen King’s “The Tommyknockers.” This one you have three main character groups. You have the two main characters Bobbi and James, and then you have the town’s folk. And when Bobbi uncovers the…the spacecraft for the first time, it starts to have an effect on the entire town. And as she continues to dig Bobbi herself becomes obsessed with the unearthing of this craft, and it has to be done. It has to be done. It takes a mental toll, it takes a physical toll, takes an emotional toll on Bobbi herself. And she goes through a lot of changes both mentally and physically.
08:37 The townsfolk are also starting to be controlled, mind control, doing things that they normally wouldn’t do. Sayin’ in things they normally wouldn’t say; killing people, for example. And you see these as a, you know, the townspeople as a group…as a group of characters. But it’s like one character.
Internal and External Driven Characters
09:00 And then there’s James, who also has his own internal struggles. He’s a recovering alcoholic. He has violent tendencies, but he’s also the only one that can save the town. He’s not affected by, you know, the alien craft. And so he can see what’s going on and he has to make the decision to make these changes. So he has more of the external conflicts than anybody else does. But it’ll show you, reading this story, a great way to have these external conflicts while you’re focusing more on the internal ones.
09:41 So when we think about the character-driven line some of the better features for this is that you end up with really great characters. They’re highly engrossing, everybody’s interested in them. There is no middle of the road. You either love them or hate them. You want them to succeed, you’re rooting for them, or you want them to fail and you’re rooting against them.
10:07 And whatever it is, whenever that happens, whether they succeed or they fail, your readers will actually have a sense of satisfaction from that. Because these characters are so evolved and they’re so real, the…they can’t help but pull for them.
10:24 The problem with the character-driven plotline is that most of the time the plots are easily predictable. They’re pretty simple; they’re straightforward. There isn’t a whole lot of unexpectedness. And, you know, I can hear you out there thinking “Hey shouldn’t every story have great characters and a great storyline?”
10:53 And the answer is yes… But you should strive for one or the other, especially in the beginning of your writing career. Doing both is very, very difficult. If you think about it, you can imagine trying to come up with a plotline that is so deep, full of twists and turns, you know, full of the resolutions, the unexpected, that in itself is very difficult.
11:23 Doing the same thing with a character to make them a believable, life-like person for the reader is also very difficult. And when you have the two very difficult things, meshing them together it becomes near impossible. I’m not saying it is impossible. It has been done. There are quite a few that are very, very well done. The Song of Ice and Fire, by George RR Martin (The Game of Thrones), is one that you get involved with the characters heavily. But the storyline itself is very intricate. And the Lord of the Rings is the same way. So it can be done. But don’t focus so much on that.
A Practice Exercise for You
12:10 So if you’re focusing on a character-driven storyline, which will help you in the future develop your characters for other stories a lot easier, then you want to forget about your plotline. So we’ll do a little exercise I got for you. Practice writing a character-driven plotline.
12:36 So, okay we’re gonna come up with a story. But we’re not focusing on the story, we’re focusing on the characters. So we’re gonna do a little outline. I want you to do an outline of a short story, not a full-length novel. But in each scene, when you’re doing your outline, make each scene about the character.
13:00 You want to think about what the character is going to go through in that scene. Every scene for this short story, for this…this practice here, should have some type of internal or emotional struggle. It doesn’t have to be resolved in the same scene. The smaller ones can, but focus on these struggles, these internal conflicts.
13:28 For example, maybe your character has to give a big speech and they’re not very good at, you know, public speaking. And…and they’re very nervous. They have to overcome all this so they don’t get up there and stutter and stammer and, you know, forget their words. And so that could be the big one, and then you have these other little things that maybe come along.
13:53 Another one, like I mentioned on earlier, is that going through a divorce. That one is easily recognizable. It might be something that you can, you can work into your story because there is a lot of internal conflict going on with that. Especially if your main character is the one that does not want the divorce. So there’s that conflict with the other spouse.
14:21 When you’re writing these outlines you’re gonna have to have an environment. There is gonna have to be a world that your characters live in. But the focus is on the character and not the world. So you want to build enough of the environment that the reader knows where to place these characters. They’re not just free-floating out in the abyss. But, you want to make sure that you have enough detail for this to happen. But leave out the detail that’s gonna really draw the reader into the environment.
Don’t Stress on Environmental Details
14:54 For example, if you are putting your character in a house and there is a table lamp that gets knocked over, just tell them they knocked the table lamp over. You don’t need to say what kind of lamp it was, and that it was plugged in and had a 60-watt bulb and a silk chandelier, you know, a lampshade that shattered on impact and caused the dog to scurry under the couch.
15:21 You don’t need to do that for this. We’re just gonna write that the lamp got knocked over and that will bring the focus back to the character. How do they react to this lamp being broken now? So once you have your outline go back over it and make sure that each scene has something that focuses directly on the character that’s in that scene. And then write it out. Write out the short story and when you’re done writing it out, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s gonna be a rough draft, it’s gonna be crap, but just write it out.
Show it Off
16:00 When you’re done, read it over and make sure that it’s something that focuses directly on the character, has enough environmental factors and external struggles to make it a story and then give it to somebody to read and see what they think about it.
16:16 And when you’re all done head over to the ExtraDraft.com, to the Freebie Friday page, click on the link for the forum. You’ll find the link to episode 7, and tell us how your story came out. Tell us how you did. If you want to post the whole story or a link to it, go ahead and do that, too.
16:40 But focus on your characters for a character-driven story with enough environmental aspects to make it believable. And for the reader to place the character somewhere, but not so much focus that it takes away from the characters. And as you practice this more and more you will get better. So stop by, let us know how you do, and we’ll see you next week.
17:07 Until then, have fun and write words.