Writing the Character-Driven Story: Chapter 1

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* Congratulations
* Writing the Character-Driven Story: Chapter 1
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

Quotes of the Day

“It’s been a wonderful decade. My first book published two weeks before my 50th birthday, my seventh three months before my 59th.” Anonymous from Twitter

Whatever “works,” eh? Every writer’s different.

“Doing it well now is much better than doing it perfectly later.” Seth Godin in his blog


Congratulations to Erin Donoho on the publication of her first novel in print and ebook.

To see the paperback, Click Here. The book is also available through Amazon and other booksellers.

Writing the Character-Driven Story: Chapter 1

Chapter 1 — What Do You Mean, Character-Driven?

Staple it to the inside of your eyelids, folks: All good fiction is character-driven.

No matter the genre, fiction isn’t about the science or the problem or the threat. It isn’t about betrayal or addiction or solving a crime.

No matter how perfect the science, the story is about how the characters REACT to the science. No matter how massive the problem, no matter how dark the threat, the story is about how the characters REACT to the problem or the threat.

Perhaps there’s an unexpected betrayal, a devastating addiction, a horribly heinous crime. The story is about how the characters REACT to the betrayal, the addiction, the crime.

Fiction is about what happens, how the characters react, and what happens as a result of that reaction.

Writing a Romance? In every case, the story is about the characters’ reactions to the problems that are keeping them apart. It’s about how the characters overcome those problems. And it’s about how the WAY they overcome those problems affects themselves and each other.

It’s also about their individual and collective resolve to be together and how that resolve affects themselves, each other, and maybe even their family members. Because maybe the family members are going to appear as the leads in the next novel in the series.

Writing Mystery? It isn’t about the body you dropped on page one. In most mysteries, the body and the murder itself are only the catalyst that brings together the characters. But the story is about how the various characters react to the crime, to each other, and to each other’s efforts to resolve it.

Writing Science Fiction? It isn’t about the science, though readers of “hard” SF are sticklers for the science. But the story is about how the human and/or alien characters react to the science, both when it goes right and when it goes wrong.

Writing Fantasy? (Broadly, fantasy is defined as anything that’s outside the realm of physics as we know it.) It isn’t about the magic or the fairy dust or the “beam” that can dissolve a human to the molecular level and reconstruct him elsewhere a few seconds later. It’s about the characters’ reactions to the magic or the fairy dust or that seems-like-science-but-isn’t-really stuff.

The Lord of the Rings wasn’t about a great quest. It wasn’t about dropping an all-powerful ring into a volcano. It was about how the quest revealed the strengths and weaknesses of the characters. It was about the ability of the characters to react to whatever enemies they encountered along the way, even when the enemies they encountered were themselves.

Writing a Western? Again the story is about the characters, the good guys with their flaws and the bad guys with their beneficial qualities. In the Western more than in any other genre (in my opinion) whether a character is a good guy or a bad guy often depends on the setting and the circumstances.

For example, in the early part of my 22-volume Wes Crowley saga, a company of Texas Rangers is pitted against raiding Comanches in the Texas Panhandle. The Rangers, naturally, are the good guys. Right?

Or at least you think so, until you see a great Comanche warrior kneeling over the grave of his only son. Or until you see a vaunted old Comanche war chief leading a group of braves into an ambush because that one time he was less than wary as he strived to get them home more quickly. Or until you hear a Ranger, with his final breath, admit to robbing a bank in years past.

Otherwise, in the western as in the other genres, the story is about why the characters do what they do and how they react to themselves and to each other.

Writing 5-Flame Erotica? It isn’t about the sex. It’s about how the characters perform the various acts of sex and how those performances and the sexual acts themselves affect each character mentally, physically and emotionally.

Writing Psychological Suspense? This is a really twisted one and my personal favorite. This is both a genre and an element that you can use in pretty much any other genre on a scene by scene basis. And it’s great fun to write.

But part of the fun is in the details. I write these scenes “into the dark” like I write all my fiction. But with psychological suspense scenes, I cycle back over them at least once and sometimes two or three times. Each time I allow myself to peel back another layer on the character’s thought process. Everything the character gives me goes onto the page.

The story in psychological suspense isn’t about the missing valuable object or the kidnap victim or the terrorist who’s about to set off a dirty bomb in Mall of America.

The story is about what’s going on in the mind of the thief of the valuable object and the detective who’s after him. It’s about what’s going on in the mind of the kidnap victim and the kidnapper and the would-be rescuer. It’s about what’s going on in the mind of the terrorist and the shoppers (if they know) and in the minds the people who are trying to stop the terrorist or disable the bomb or whatever.

In other words, it’s about what’s going on (the suspense) in each major character’s mind (both the good guys and the bad guys). It’s about how that character reacts to what’s going on in his mind. And it’s about what he or she suspects is going on in the other major character’s mind and how he reacts to that.

Note: It’s perfectly all right to peel back the layers to portray what’s going on in the mind of the POV character, but very often you can convey what’s going on in the POV character’s mind—and in the minds of lesser characters—with the character’s actions or dialogue. It doesn’t all have to be you recording the character’s thoughts. Hinting at them can be just as effective.

As I said, it’s a great deal of fun.

One caution on writing psychological suspense— When detailing the character’s thoughts directly or via the character’s actions or dialogue, you have to go into enough depth so the reader will go along for the ride and so the reader WANTS to go along for the ride. The reader must experience the same level of tension the character is experiencing.

But if you go overboard, if you write too many of the character’s direct thoughts or go into too much detail and the character’s thought process becomes tedious or unnecessarily muddled or unnecessarily repetitive, you will lose the reader.

The key word there is “unnecessarily.” If you want to indicate a character’s confused mental state, letting the reader share in some muddled thoughts is an excellent way to do it.

A Note on Writer Intrusion—

Again, if the character lets you “see” a detail of the setting or “hear” his thoughts or witness his emotional state, put it in the story.

But if you, the writer, “think” you need to add something, Just Don’t. Do not intrude on the story.

Likewise, if you “think” the character gave you too much of something, leave it in anyway. The story is unfolding as the characters run through it, so you can’t possibly know what might be important later in the story.

Repetition, when it is necessary and when it is used right, is a very valuable tool in writing these kinds of stories and scenes. But if it isn’t used right, that sound you hear will be books being slammed closed.

I’ve written novels, novellas and short stories in every genre listed above except Romance. But many of my novels and stories have a strong romance element. And many booksellers consider Psychological Suspense a subgenre of mystery. I disagree vehemently.

Psychological suspense is just another element that I have used in almost every story of any length that I have ever written: so westerns, SF, mystery, action-adventure, magic realism, and thrillers.

Notice that all of the genres above (with the exception of Science Fiction) are also elements of fiction. That is, they can be included in other genres. A Western can also have heavy elements of Romance, Psychological Suspense, Magic Realism (fantasy) and so on.

The only element of fiction that trumps all others is Science Fiction. If a work contains an SF element, it is an SF story in the first category, then romance or psychological suspense or young adult or whatever else after that.

What About Plot-Driven Fiction?

Yeah, that isn’t actually a thing. Seriously.

I’ve heard some say a story is “plot driven.” But even if you want to give them that, what drives the plot? The characters.

Ray Bradbury, perhaps the greatest writer of all time, and certainly one of the great writers of all time, said plot is only the footprints the characters leave behind as they run through the story. Get it?

Here, read it again. Plot is only the footprints the characters leave behind as they run through the story.

Leave behind?


Plot isn’t something to be planned out and meticulously followed. Plot is not a preface to writing. Plot is the result of writing. What’s the fun in writing a story you already know?

When anyone asks me about my writing process, I tell them all I really do is follow the characters around. Then I write down what happens and how they react—what they say and do—and what happens as a result of that. I let the characters tell the story they want to tell.

After all, they know it much better than I. They’re living it.

All fiction is about characters. All fiction is character-driven.

In the Journal tomorrow, I’ll give you my response to some really great “reasons” so many writers who follow the Journal are not taking me up on the Soleada Garcia subseries sale.

They are reasons that I believe are probably universal, but that most people won’t say. So stay tuned. You’ll (maybe) have your eyes opened. Or not.

I’ll talk with you again then.

Of Interest

Don’t Shave That Yak!

Editing and Reading Observations… Part 9

The Numbers

The Journal……………………………… 1820

Writing of Blackwell Ops 20: Soleada Garcia: Into the Future (tentative title)

Day 1…… 3681 words. To date…… 3681

Fiction for February……………………. 7367
Fiction for 2024…………………………. 124971
Fiction since October 1……………… 428026
Nonfiction for February……………… 4410
Nonfiction for 2024…………………… 36370
2024 consumable words…………… 16131

2024 Novels to Date……………………… 3
2024 Novellas to Date…………………… 0
2024 Short Stories to Date……………… 1
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………… 85
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)…………… 9
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)…… 239
Short story collections…………………… 31

Disclaimer: I am a prolific professional fiction writer. On this blog I teach Writing Into the Dark and adherence to Heinlein’s Rules. Unreasoning fear and the myths of writing will slow your progress as a writer or stop you cold. I will never teach the myths on this blog.

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2 thoughts on “Writing the Character-Driven Story: Chapter 1”

  1. We have to add that ‘All genres are good, except the boring one.’.

    This quote for an unknown reason is misattributed to Gioacchino Rossini, but for real it’s Voltaire, his introduction to his comedy Prodigal Son (1763)

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