Tag Archives: characterization

Plot Driven vs. Character Driven? So binary!

What do you base a story on? Do you have a plot that’s been rolling through your brain, based on an historical or life-changing event? Or is it based on a certain  person, grappling with a foible of the human condition? Fiction writing texts tell us most stories are plot-driven or character-driven, but I tend to think of it another way.  Not in all stories but perhaps in some, it’s the character’s own tendencies that drives the plot.

I recently read A Handmaid’s Tale (I believe I’m the last person in North America to actually say “I recently read” it), which no doubt can be considered plot-driven. In short, it’s set in the dystopian nation of Gilead, where a patriarchal and militaristic society subjugates women, most notoriously the young, fertile kind who must bear the society’s children for those who can’t. The story is told through the viewpoint of the handmaiden Offred, and it’s through her eyes that we learn firsthand of the totalitarian regime’s constraints. For much of the first part of the book we see how Offred bends to the will of the society, but as we learn, through flashbacks, about her personality and the way she lived her life before a government coup, we see how much her rebellious and questioning nature was suppressed. So  when she is allowed some liberties and is taken to a skewed but still viable throwback to the way life used to  be, she becomes bolder and starts taking chances again, her rebel proclivities driving the narrative to a precarious yet daring end.

So how does her inherent nature drive the plot? Without revealing too much of the story, if Offred was more reticent, if she remained subjugated, if she wasn’t willing to take life-or-death chances, the plot may have veered to a more tragic ending. Instead the character pushes the boundaries, drawing on her past experiences to use them as a catalyst for her forward actions. As a reader we get to know the Offred of the nation of Gilead, but also who she had been before it (there’s some conjecture what her real name is–some have said Kate, but she’s referred to as June in the the Netflix series). When we learn what was important to her in the past, how she handled certain situations, and most tragically what she had lost, we can better understand the decisions she makes when handling the situations she confronts now.

In effect, she’s acting in character, and it’s her intrinsic likes, dislikes, fears, and foibles that direct her actions and reactions, thus steering the plot. And it’s her own character flaws and attributes that make those plot twists and turns all the more believable. For the writer, delving deep into the personality of the character, really knowing who they are and what they’re capable of, is essential to the change that must come over your protagonist as they’re propelled toward the conclusion, and thus one wholly satisfying ending.

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No more boring characters. Please. Pretty please.

Without interesting characters, there would be no reason to pick up a novel, as humans are all basically voyeurs, and our most favorite pastime is observing each other. With a good read we can get inside an imaginary human’s head, see what makes them tick, understand their flaws and foibles. So beyond what physical descriptions can tell us about our characters, what can we do to make them alive and breathing, especially considering some modern schools of thought decry physical descriptions at all? Let’s take a look at this “Checklist on Creating Characters,” taken from David Starkey’s Creative Writing – Four Genres in Brief  (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009), a terrific textbook I’ve used in my Creative Writing classes:

  1. Do you know your main characters and their desires well? You should have a strong sense of who your characters are, where they live, where they’ve been, and the driving forces that make them act. They should know what they want and what they’re prepared to do to get it.
  2. Does your story show us only the essential aspect of your characters? While it’s important that you know your characters thoroughly, you will be revealing only a tiny sliver of that info on the page. Show your characters being themselves, only more so. Whatever conflict they are involved in should bring out a heightened sense of who they really are.
  3. Is your description of each character appropriate to, and necessary for, that character’s function in the story? You, the author, should always have a clear mental picture of your characters, but you should ask yourself if a complete physical, psychological, ethical, etc., description is really necessary for all characters. Unless some physical or emotional aspect of your character is necessary to the storyline, leave it out.
  4. Are the characters’ names appropriate? Do it reflect their personality? Their ethnicity? A physical characteristic? Try not to have too many Sams, Steves, Saras or Susans, as so many of the same letter can be confusing. And if that 1840s character from the remotest region of cloistered China is named O’Brien, you better have a reason why.
  5. Should that character be named at all? He’s a doorman the protagonist breezes past on the way out. Who cares. Unless, of course, later on he comes after him with a shotgun.
  6. Are your main characters different at the end of the story than they were in the beginning? The most convincing fictional characters are both consistent and surprising. Reread the opening and concluding sections of your story. Do you see a difference in how your protagonist began and how he or she ends up? If there’s no growth–or considerable decline–then you have a static character, and your readers will feel cheated.
  7. And at the end, will they leave your readers wanting more? Essential if you want to continue your story in a series. Like breadcrumbs through the woods, leave a trail of intriguing tidbits about the characters you’d like your readers to follow into the next book. And the next, and the next, and beyond.