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How to Write a Character-Driven Book

Updated on November 7, 2023
drmiddlebrook profile image

A former university communications professor, Sallie, an independent publisher, also writes romantic fiction novels and short stories.

Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer provide good illustration of the concept of character-driven stories.
Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer provide good illustration of the concept of character-driven stories. | Source

This article offers discussion and guidance to help anyone who wants to learn more about writing character-driven books. I am a former college professor (of journalism/mass communications) who is also a novelist, a lifelong consumer and writer of fiction stories, as well as an astute observer of people. These credentials, along with the fact that I am a self-taught and self-published writer of fiction novels and short stories that have been widely read, provide me with knowledge and experience I am using in this article to examine:

  • What can drive a story.
  • The difference between plot-driven and character-driven stories.
  • Three primary elements of a good character-driven book.
  • Two psychology-based methods that can help writers create believable characters.
  • How to "flesh out" a character.

These days, writers are encouraged (by editors and/or literary agents) to write plot-driven stories that "get straight into the action," without spending too much time developing characters. Why? Because it is believed that reader interest is short and can only be captured and held by involving characters in swiftly moving events and actions. Readers have precious little time or patience, we're told, to go along with prolonged character development. However, I believe that character development can work hand-in-hand with plot movement. And that means it is possible for strong characters to become the reason why readers enjoy the plot— because it can allow them to see complete human beings emerge and develop as they are taken through a variety of events and actions.

Ernest Hemingway, in 1939, posing for a book dust-jacket photo. Hemingway is known for creating well-developed, memorable characters.
Ernest Hemingway, in 1939, posing for a book dust-jacket photo. Hemingway is known for creating well-developed, memorable characters. | Source

What Can Drive a Story: Either Plot or Characters

There are two primary ways to drive any story: By plot or by characters. Both are elements of story writing that can be skillfully used to craft stories that are memorable, connecting with readers and keeping their attention riveted to your book.

The right combination of plot, characters, style and setting (environment) is needed to make a story great, but, in any novel, there has to be an inverse relationship between characters and plot. That means, if characters are the driving force for the novel, then the plot must take on a less-important role. Or, if plot is the driving force, then characters must play the more minor role.Yes: It is an "either/or" proposition. Only one of these two elements, characters or plot, can be the driving force.

Plot-driven novels are defined more by the action or events that are taking place, rather than by the people in the novel. Events such as war, natural disasters, a disease epidemic, a terrorist or alien invasion, and so on, are good examples of happenings that can fuel the type of action required for a plot-driven focus. Since there is danger present at every turn, the primary concern of the plot is to gain some type of control over, or in spite of, the event. And, while it is possible for characters to be well-developed in plot-driven novels, the driving force is not really the characters; they are there mainly to serve as a way to move the plot along. The major element in a plot-driven story is the action that is taking place, and the characters (and their emotions) are secondary.

Understanding Character- vs. Plot-Driven Stories

To gain a good understanding of how a story has to sacrifice either plot or characters, I will now examine how each element looks when it is the driving force of a story. For the purpose of illustration, let's take a look at two different movies based on disasters at sea. One uses plot as its driving force, the other uses characters.

Parts of the plot-driven action-adventure movie The Poseidon Adventure were filmed aboard the RMS Queen Mary. This photo of the actual ship was taken in June, 1960.
Parts of the plot-driven action-adventure movie The Poseidon Adventure were filmed aboard the RMS Queen Mary. This photo of the actual ship was taken in June, 1960. | Source
This is a photo of the real (rather than the film version) RMS Titanic's reading and writing room.
This is a photo of the real (rather than the film version) RMS Titanic's reading and writing room. | Source

Plot-driven Adventure at Sea: In the action-adventure disaster film, The Poseidon Adventure (1972), a group of passengers were presented with the struggle of their lives as they were forced to fight against the odds to survive at sea, to escape from a completely capsized ocean liner.The plot had to provide action and events to keep danger ever-present and always emphasized, or else the movie would not have been the nail-biter that it was. Mind-numbing fear and the constant possibility of death had to be omnipresent, giving center stage to plot, and making sacrifices of the characters.

Character-driven Adventure at Sea: Another disaster at sea, Titanic (1997), found a way to focus more on characters, than on plot. The plot, after all, was already well-known. The true-to-life voyage of the RMS Titanic was not simply history, it was well-known history. And because it used a well-known event, and not a manufactured-from-scratch story completely dreamed up by a novel writer, it offered an opportunity for the event to be seen from the perspective of well-developed characters. It gave the writer (who was also the movie's director, James Cameron) a chance to make up a story focusing, in a "what if?" fashion, on characters and their emotions, as well as on their thoughts, decisions, and reflections. By doing so, movie viewers were presented with not simply another way to view the disaster, but also with an unforgettable character-driven story.

I used these two particular movies because I believe they illustrate, well, the primary difference between plot-driven and character-driven stories. Plot, if it is the driving force in a novel, has to take center stage. It cannot give way to characters, because doing so would sacrifice the impact of the plot—the action and events that give the plot-driven story its urgency, its importance. When characters become the focus, action is forced to give way to their development.

To keep the focus on events and action, which is what allows plot to drive a story, sacrifices must be made. And, they must be made by placing plot-driving elements ahead of deep-rooted and in-depth development of characters. Why? Because it's just not possible to explore, in great depth and detail, the emotions, reflections, and quirky personality nuances of characters when life-threatening events are cropping up all around them, and every effort to save them has to be taken.

It is still important to understand, however, that plot and characters are inextricably joined. Plot exists, after all, to help to mold characters by forcing them to move, and by challenging them to develop and grow, to rise (or fall) to the occasion.

A page from Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
A page from Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer. | Source

Three Primary Elements of a Character-Driven Book

Elements that help to make the character-driven approach effective include:

1. Developing and fine-tuning character details to set the stage for creating a bond between the reader and the book's protagonist.

A well-developed character will invite readers to get to know him or her intimately. He or she will be challenged to grow, and readers will be taken along on the journey leading to growth. Plot becomes secondary, because readers are enveloped in getting to know a believable character, a person with all of his/her human emotions, motivations, fears, weaknesses and flaws. As the plot reveals what happens to the well-developed character, readers are intrigued because their "human" details are driving their responses and reactions to plot events and action. Readers are welcomed voyeurs who are made to feel as though they are involved somehow, intimately, with the story. They not only know the character, personally, but they also care about and are eager to learn more, as much as they can, as the story unfolds.

Another page from Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Another page from Mark Twain's Adventures of Tom Sawyer. | Source

2. The characters and the plot are seamlessly integrated. Although the primary driving force is well-developed characters, both characters and plot are working to move the story forward.

Readers are being taken on a journey by a plot that is clearly led by their interest in the book's characters. Although the plot should also be well-developed, it is the characters who are center stage on a journey that has readers effectively connected, and well within in their grasp.

3. Characters remain true to their core characterization. Their actions and reactions, as they grow and develop, are in accord with the nature of who they are.

Well-developed characters are true to form. Readers know them, they understand what makes them tick; what gives them joy, what makes them sad, what they want most of all, what they might do (or what they would never do) to get what they want most of all.

Two Psychology-Based Method That Can Help Writers Create Believable Characters

----------------Allow Characters to Show Their True Colors-----------------

As a certified facilitator of the True Colors personality assessment test, I am able to use what I know (and what I have taught as a True Colors trainer) about "personality types." This knowledge helps me create believable characters for my novels by providing me with a foundation in basic personality types, including the good and the not-so-good qualities about each type.

What is True Colors? It is a popular "personality test" developed in 1978 by Don Lowery that is used across the country and internationally in education and business settings. Why? Because it is useful for the purpose of discovering personality based strengths, and for providing insight into human behavior by learning more about behavioral links to temperament. True Colors was developed based on work done by researchers Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother, Katherine Briggs. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was built, during World War II, on the theoretical foundation established by psychologist Carl Jung (which he discussed in his 1921 book, Psychologische Typen, or, translated, Psychological Types). Currently used personal assessment methods, such as True Colors, are used in efforts to enhance the way we live, work, communicate and interact with others, at work and in our personal lives. They attempt to make it easy for us to recognize our core values, primary motivations, and needs as they relate to our "personality type." As a trained True Colors facilitator, I am able to draw upon my knowledge of the composite traits that are part of the method's personality inventory to help me create what I see as believable fictional characters who act and respond in ways that are true to their "personality type's" core values and needs.

Even though having a dominant set of strengths means there are sets of traits that are not as dominant, any individual can work on improving strengths in any area, regardless of their overriding "true color," or dominant personality type. Still, since it is known that people do not change from one basic personality type to another, using a "personality typing" method can help writers stay true to a character's basic personality.

The True Colors testing system utilizes a process that is founded upon decades of personality research and observation. Combining personality research with research-based information on colors, True Colors assigns one of four colors to four basic personality types: Blue ("compassionate nurturer"), Gold ("responsible and traditional"), Green ("conceptual and visionary") and Orange ("spontaneous and adventurous").

Every individual has a color spectrum that comprises all four of the basic personality types, with one color/one type being their primary color or personality type, and no color is inherently feminine or masculine. For example, I am Blue, but I also have traits matching Green, Gold, and Orange personality types. The order that I used to list my traits indicates, to a greater or lesser percentage, how much of each color's traits I have in my total spectrum. Therefore, my most primary personality traits are those contained in the Blue/Nurturer profile, and my secondary, or next highest percentage of traits, are represented by the Green/Visionary profile. Third highest in my personality are Gold/Traditional personality traits, and the smallest percentage, in my spectrum, are traits represented by the Orange/Adventurous type.

The Blue/Nurturer Personality Type

To give you an idea of what a profile "type" looks like, here is a description of the Blue/Nurturer Personality Type (which, again, is this article's author's dominant set of characteristics or "personality type").

The Blue personality type describes people who are sensitive to the needs of others; they are sincere, express appreciation, and are cooperative, collaborative, and creative. As caring caretakers, Blues are inclusive, so they're team builders as well as team players. Blues like people and engage others easily, but are also artistic, inspirational, and spiritual. Loyal, Blue Nurturers are often seen as idealistic, intuitive, and romantic. They are seekers of unity and harmony and often serve as the mediator or peacemaker.

In my first romantic fiction novel, Silver Waves of Turbulence, the hero (Harvey Wilson) is primarily Green/Visionary and Orange/Adventurous, but he also has a good percentage of Blue/Nurturer, and a smaller percentage of the Gold/Traditional traits. The novel's heroine, (Zarah Brion) is one of the most rare True Colors personality types: She has equal percentages of each one of the four colors.

---------------------The Nine Enneagram Personality Types-------------------------

Another psychology-based model that can be used to help create believable characters includes the Enneagram Personality Type.

The Enneagram (which is taught at schools such as Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, as well as internationally) is a set of nine distinct personality types. Temperament and pre-natal factors are seen as the main determinants of personality type. Every individual can possess parts of all nine types, but one, the basic personality type, is dominant. Following is a brief description of each of the nine Enneagram types:

  • Type One/The Reformer: is principled, purposeful, self-controlled, and perfectionist.
  • Type Two/The Helper: is generous, demonstrative, people-pleasing, and possessive.
  • Type Three/The Achiever: is adaptable, excelling, driven, and image-conscious.
  • Type Four/The Individualist: is expressive, dramatic, self-absorbed, and temperamental.

  • Type Five/The Investigator: is perceptive, innovative, secretive, and isolated.
  • Type Six/The Loyalist: is engaging, responsible, anxious, and suspicious.
  • Type Seven/The Enthusiast: is spontaneous, versatile, acquisitive, and scattered.
  • Type Eight/The Challenger: is self-confident, decisive, willful, and confrontational.
  • Type Nine/The Peacemaker is receptive, reassuring, complacent, and resigned.

Create "Flesh and Blood" People

Whether or not you choose to use a personality typing method, you should find a way to create and "flesh out" your characters if you want to write a character-driven book.

Select an archetype or model, then briefly sketch out who a character is, and what they are like to those who know them. Create a file on your computer or in a handy, hand-written "Character Journal." (Just remember that you'll need to be able to reference your file often as your story develops.)

Use as many pages as it takes to write down as much information as you need to develop a whole picture of your character's personality traits: the good, the not-so-good, and the downright ugly. Begin with how your character might look, then give him or her a name, age, and a basic personality type. Then think about his/her family, upbringing, likes/dislikes, and how your character might interact with others. What makes him/her happy, what ticks them off or turns them red with rage? Talk to your characters, ask them questions, and even more important, listen to them. Once they become "alive," they will begin to tell you who they are, and as you write your story, you will be able to remain true to them, even as they grow and develop, personally, as your story evolves.

Vivid, realistic characters, like those created by Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple (first published in 1982), can inspire readers and entertainment producers for many generations.
Vivid, realistic characters, like those created by Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple (first published in 1982), can inspire readers and entertainment producers for many generations. | Source

Memorable Characters Stand The Test of Time

Many character-driven novels have proven to be able to stand the test of time when it comes to memorability. Some well-known books employing a character-driven approach include:

  • Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Alice Walker's The Color Purple
  • Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist

And, several movies employing this approach, well, include:

  • Forest Gump, starring Tom Hanks
  • The Book of Eli, starring Denzel Washington
  • Sybil, starring Sally Fields

All of these works employed the character-driven approach so well that the characters and the roles portrayed by the movies' stars became real to readers and viewers based on well-developed human characteristics and vulnerabilities.

As human beings, we connect effortlessly and personally with “human” characteristics and vulnerabilities, and character-driven books can provide these for us skillfully and powerfully. By giving readers well-developed characters to connect and/or identify with, as a writer, you are giving your readers people they can feel either sympathy for or empathy with (or both). If you do the work it takes to develop interesting characters, skillfully and creatively, you will be giving your readers a chance to get to know people who seem real, people with whom they can become acquainted that they can fall in love with, and that they will remember for many years to come.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD


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