Thursday, March 15, 2012

Letting the characters tell the story

Before I get to the blog post, I need to ask that fyrefall contact me. I've Googled you and posted a response to your entry. Everyone else has responded. If I don't hear from you by Monday, your copy of Discount Armageddon will go to the next person in line.

Now, on to the post.

There are two ways to tell a story. The first way is plot-driven. It's pretty self-explanatory. It's driven by events in the plot, and most mysteries and thrillers are written with a plot-driven story.

The second way is character-driven, which is when the characters and their choices are what determines in which direction the story goes. That's how I write, and therefore what I'm going to talk about today.

In order to have a character-driven story, you first have to have strong characters. A cast who consists of people content to sit at home and watch the world pass by can be interesting to hang out with, but less fun to read about. That isn't to say that laid-back characters can't be prodded into action with the right motivation, but, in a character-driven story, you do need a character strong enough to carry the action.

Before you even start writing the story for a character-driven narrative, familiarize yourself with the main characters. That includes your antagonist, who should have strong motivations behind what he or she chooses to do. Map out the characters' internal and external motivation, as in, what happens where the reader can see, and what won't be on the page. Internal motivation is what you keep in mind for a character, without explicitly writing it.

Find out other things about your characters, too. There are character surveys online, which some people find helpful. For others, it's more of a conversation in your head with the character, as if you're on a date. Know at least five things about your character that won't come out within the story.

Once you're familiar with the characters, toss in the conflict, and find out what the characters would do with it. Ask the antagonist what he or she will do to thwart the protagonist. Develop the conflict as if you're witnessing both sides of the story. You need only report on one side, but remember to treat the characters as if they're real people who consider what's going on to be important. If there isn't a good reason to do it, don't have them behave that way.

I learned most of what I did about character-driven narrative through role-playing, specifically running games. No plot survived contact with the characters. I learned a lot about sitting back and creating satisfying narratives that challenged the characters without stomping on their character concepts. It was an easier way to learn about characters-driven stories, too, because I only had to write the antagonist.

When you write a character-driven story, though, be prepared for the plot to turn out differently than you expected, and for parts to be less important than you thought. It can work for an outliner just fine, provided you're willing to adjust the outline accordingly, or leave it open for characters to turn out differently than you'd planned. As with real people, characters in a story can, and should, surprise us. It can be really annoying to write, because it means the story is off in a different direction than planned. But, as a reader, it's fun when people surprise you.

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