Often in workshops and writing groups you’ll come across exercises or discussions that explore character-driven and plot-driven stories. Which do you write? Is one better than the other? The answers for me are: both and no. All novels, in my opinion, are essentially driven by plot. When you break the pieces down, the action and conflict define your story. Characters are an extra layer, the icing on the cake. You might have noticed that in some novels the characters themselves are far more memorable than what they did or the things that happened to them. When this happens, you’ve found what is considered to be a character-driven story. However, plot isn’t given any less attention in these novels simply because the characters take center stage. Plot is, and will always be, crucial to a well written story. But your plot can be significantly enhanced by well developed, dynamic characers.
So, how does one create such characters, you ask. If it were easy or simple, we’d probably never debate the difference between plot and character driven stories. Everyone would turn out page after page of vivd, three dimensional characters who move through a fast paced world with twists and turns that leave us breathless. Creating your character depends on several variables. How do you think, organize, write and plan your novels? These things, among others, tend to determine how you’ll successfully build characters.
One option, which many authors swear by (and that is actually a lot of fun), is a character diagram. There are several types of these available online. You can find a great template here, which prompts you with questions about your characters. Now this is a very in depth and detailed method of creating your characters and it may not be entirely useful, but something like this can help you train your brain to think of characterization differently.The drawbacks to this method, however, are that it is time consuming and you will most likely not use much of the information you put into the diagram directly. You will retain it though and it makes deciding what your characters do and say much easier.
Another method might sound rather silly, but works much like a diagram. You, as the author, sit down and ‘interview’ your characters. The questions depend on your story. Some common questions:
- What is your favourite colour? (food, city, sport, etc.)
- How do you feel about …..? (insert another character, time, or issue here.)
- When were you born and where were you raised?
- Are your parents living or dead? What is your relationship like with them?
- Who do you love/hate and why?
- What do you look like? (this is to develop the characters self-perception and may not reflect their real appearance. It also shows personality)
- Where did you go to school? (or educational, occupational, etc. background)
The list of questions is really endless. Like the diagram method, the interview enables you to ‘know’ your character so that when writing, their decisions, motivations, and dialogue will be believable and interesting and will flow naturally for you as you write.
You might also try writing a short bio or synpsis of each character. This can be done a few ways. You can simply summarize who they are and what they look like as well as including their relationship to other characters. Another option is to write a short story or monologue in the character’s POV. I like using this method because it gives me a ‘feel’ for the character’s voice and allows me to try different mannerisms and patterns of speech until I find the one that is right.
Of course, you may scoff at all of these methods because you like to allow your characters to occur naturally. This is fine, but beware, often we end up editing and rewriting because without knowing the character it’s easy to write something that doesn’t quite fit or is unsuited to the character’s personality. For those of you who would rather work this way, I recommend at least a simple character tree. What’s this? It’s much like a family tree but instead of relatives you’d use your characters. The top position goes to the protagonist(s) and branches out in order of importance or involvement in the story right down to even the most minor. This method is useful in rooting out unnecessary characters and it is fast while still allowing you to be familiar with your characters before writing.
There are endless possibilities for plotting characters. These are just what I have found to be the most common. Some writers combine or modify these methods, or create entirely new ways that work very well. The best piece of advice would be to write what feels natural. If the dialogue, attitudes, etc. feel forced and you’re finding it difficult to identify when writing the character, the odds are the reader will notice. In this case, go back to the beginning and consider a little more planning before you write.