Have you ever heard from your critique group or beta readers that your manuscript needs to be rewritten because it isn’t “character driven?”
What is a character driven story?
It can be very frustrating to pour your heart and soul into a book you really love, only to be told by a few readers they didn’t like the main character because they weren’t “driven” enough. Some of the best-selling books of all time have really strong, motivated characters who make pointed decisions and propel the storyline. It makes for good reading and excitement, engaging the reader and helping them connect with the characters by playing at their own desires to take life by the reins. But is it awful for a book to be less character-driven and more circumstance-driven? While tackling a developmental edit for a client, I came across an absolute GEM of a book. The story is about a young woman who has had a trying past and is searching for meaning in life. Circumstances outside her control force her forward into rash decisions and even worse circumstances. The life events—not the character’s decisions—are what drive the story, and it makes for a very real, very compelling read.
What is a plot driven story?
While the main character does make decisions, they are not the kind that truly move the plot or any of the sub-plots of the book. In and of herself, the character is a mess—difficult upbringing, heaps of internal angst, emotional instability, and trauma responses that make her appear moody, mean, and downright immature at times. These things would push away certain readers, except for the fact that when seen in context with the story at large those seeming negative and weak qualities engender feelings of compassion and concern within the reader. We’ve all been there. Life is sometimes just downright awful, and some people seem to get dealt a worse hand than others. Writing characters and their stories whose lives are too “real” can and definitely does dissuade some readers from getting “hooked” on the book. For others, it is more compelling and gripping than even the best opening line for the simple fact that readers want to relate to others, to feel deeply, to be moved, to know they’re not alone.
How do you make a plot driven book work?
So how do you write a book that is circumstance driven rather than character driven, and how do you make it really grip the reader? The answer is simple. It is about the internal angst, the backstory, the reason behind the characters’ every action. In a story like the one I described there are often many layers of plot that overlap creating the perfect storm of a circumstance that leaves little to no option for the main character. Their choices are either forced or made impulsively, the way we often are forced into a bad situation in real life or make snap decisions we later regret. The trick is creating that perfect storm of a conflict within the book. With each “layer” of conflict remember to keep in mind three things:
1. The layer must have an entire arc, beginning, middle, and end.
2. The reader needs to know what impact this is having on the character emotionally.
3. The layer needs to seem impossible to overcome, leaving the character stuck or forced in one direction (which MUST line up with the other layers to funnel them toward climax—the crucible).
For example, Emily is a schoolteacher living abroad. Her life started out as an adventure that took her far away from everything she knew, but an unplanned pregnancy followed by a broken engagement left her feeling lost. She can’t return home to a family who would shun her because of her unplanned, out-of-wedlock pregnancy. She struggles with the emotions behind all of it until it affects her job, and she gets fired. Unable to pay her bills she begins to sell things she owns, until one day when meeting someone who will purchase a lamp she knows is worth some money, her car is stolen in a carjacking. Lost, alone, jobless, pregnant, broke, and hopeless, she sees no other option than to return home to face the music. Her life changes when she, being turned out by her family, is taken in by a former friend. In the process of helping her find a new job, the former friend helps her understand that she is more than her life circumstances. The two fall in love, and true healing begins. Layer by layer, the weight of the conflict is added to Emily’s shoulders until she can’t carry it and just when she thinks she will snap, the circumstances that have driven her to have no choice but to fall to her knees, suddenly shift. Emily is welcomed, loved, and set on a path to reclaim her life. This sounds familiar right? It’s a very common theme in a lot of books. The only difference is the angle from which the reader views the story. In this case, the circumstance pushes the character forward into the plot, rather than the character moving forward of their own accord. These types of stories can often seem scattered and “fluffed” with scenes that seemingly make no sense—until it all makes sense, and the perfect storm blows in and changes everything.
Next time one of your beta readers or editors tells you your story needs to be more character-driven, ask them what they mean? Ask them if they feel like a “coming to grips with life” story might be more what you’ve written. Not all stories have strong, driven main characters. And not all stories have well-defined plots, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t good stories.
No matter the case, every story is a work of art, written by the artist—the author. So write your story and share it with the world, because every work of art deserves to be enjoyed.