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

Folks, Before I give you Chapter 1, a shout out to an excellent writer, Sara Therese and her most recent blog post, which I hereby declare Required Reading for anyone who enjoys good, strong, emotional writing or Love. You can find it here.

Okay, here’s Chapter 1 — What Do You Mean, Character-Driven?

Staple it to the inside of your eyeballs, 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 how the characters react and what happens as a result of that reaction.

Let’s play genre by genre.

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 is 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.) The fantasy story 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 the 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 nine-book saga, The Wes Crowley Trilogy, a company of Texas Rangers is pitted against raiding Comanches in the Texas Panhandle. The Rangers, naturally, are the good guys. Right?

You might 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 a technique that you can use in pretty much any other genre on a scene by scene basis. And it’s great fun to write. In fact, as I post this, I’m writing my third psychological suspense novel (my thirteenth novel overall).

But part of the fun is in the details. I write these scenes “into the dark” like I wrote 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.

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 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.

As I said, it’s a great deal of fun.

One caution on writing psychological suspense— When detailing the character’s thoughts, you have to go into enough depth so the reader goes along for the ride. The reader must experience the tension the character is experiencing.

But if you go overboard, if you write too many of the character’s 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.

And 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.

If your genre isn’t listed above, that’s all right. You probably can see the pattern. Apply it to your genre and see what you think. Stories in all genres are character-driven.

I’ve written novels, novellas and short stories on every genre listed above except Romance and Mystery. Although many of my novels and stories have a strong romance element, and many booksellers consider Psychological Suspense a subgenre of mystery (I do not).

Notice that all of the genres above (with the exception of Science Fiction) are also aspects of fiction. That is, they can be included in other genres. A Western can also have heavy elements of Romance, Psychological Suspense, Magical Realism (fantasy) and so on. The only aspect of fiction that trumps all others is Science Fiction. If a work has a strong SF element, it is an SF story.

What About Plot-Driven Fiction?

Yeah, that isn’t actually a thing. No, 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 the footprints the characters leave behind as they run through the story. Get it?

Here, read it again. Plot is 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. 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 they say and do. I let the characters tell the story they want to tell.

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

Fiction is about characters.

Fiction is character driven.

That’s it for Chapter 1. If you believe there’s something missing, please comment in the comments section below. I’ll either add it or explain why I didn’t.

Next time, Chapter 2: Determining Your Role in the Story

‘Til then, happy writing!


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Same here.

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2 thoughts on “Chapter 1 — What Do You Mean, Character-Driven?”

  1. Harvey, as a writer I should be able to tell you how much I appreciate your support and feedback, but embarrassingly I’m at a loss for words. Thank you for the shout out and thank you for all you give to others.

    Gratefully yours.

    • There is no need for words among friends, Sara. I hope they’ll all make it by today, too, to see what you did on renovations to The Egg. 🙂 By the way, my favorite part was the copper wash basin and counter tops. Beautiful.

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