On Character-Driven Stories, or: It’s About the People

“Don’t tell Angelika,” a friend of ours, an engineer, said to my husband, “but I tried to read her book, and didn’t make it past the first few pages. There are way too many feelings in it!” My husband did tell me, because he knew what my reaction would be: I laughed long and hard.

But also, quite contrary to our friend’s expectations, I took his statement as a compliment. For one, he only tried to read the book because it was mine, i.e. it was an expression of friendship, which I appreciate. But the other thing is that the average engineer is not exactly my target audience. So if I managed to turn one off by dint of having too many feelings in my book, I think I may have succeeded in writing for the other kind of person: the one who wants to hear about emotions, about the inner life of characters, about their relationships to one another.

The point was brought home to me again just the other day in my writers’ group. One of the critiques I got on a piece of mine, the beginning of another novel, was, “Do you really need three different points of view to tell the story?” I was a little taken aback (not to say  hurt, which is, alas, the price of getting all-too-necessary critiques). But once I’d mulled it over for a while, I came to a conclusion: the answer is Yes. Yes, I do need three points of view, because what my stories are about is the characters and their interactions.


One of the Amazon reviews of Seventh Son says: “The character relationships are subtle and involved. In fact, all of the book’s true drama comes from how people relate to each other”. Precisely. I write character-driven stories.

And the reason I write character-driven stories is because that’s what I like to read. Now, I’m fully aware that I’m in somewhat of a minority with that preference. What’s popular, what sells best, are plot-driven stories, stories where things happen, where there is action and external drama. Battles! Kidnappings! Sword-fights! Car chases! Explosions! Murders! Wicked witches poisoning girls with apples and being chased by workaholic dwarves with pickaxes!

Personally, I find action scenes boring. Crash, bang, boom, bash – just tell me who wins already, and get on with the real story, about the people. (Plus, I don’t like the tension and extra adrenaline; I’ve got too much of it coursing through my system already – a side effect of being an HSP; but that’s a post for another day.)

To me, what is interesting in a story is not so much what happens, but what the people make of it, how it affects them. I want to get into their heads. It’s the character of the, well, characters that matters to me, that creates stories. Of course you always need a plot – a beginning, a middle, an end – but to me that plot can be as simple as “girl meets boy, girl has trouble getting together with boy, girl gets boy”.

In fact, the latter is the plot of all six Austen novels; the only thing that changes is the characters. And Austen is still in print after 200 years. It’s also the plot of every romance novel, which are, in fact, as a group the biggest sellers on the fiction market. Character-driven stories roll across the screen in every TV serial like Downton Abbey or Coronation Street which follows a group of people through the years, watching them live their lives and interact with one another; and they shocked movie critics when My Big Fat Greek Wedding and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel became sleeper hits.


Come to think of it, given the popularity of the aforementioned tales, maybe I’m not in such a minority with my preference for character-driven stories, after all. There are a lot of us who prefer people stories, which can be easy to forget when you hear writing gurus go on about “what sells” or castigate the fledgling writer for “not writing tightly enough” or – gasp! – using adverbs, those touchy-feely markers of emotion.

There are a lot of us – but even if there weren’t, I’d still stick with my preference. I like Austen, and L. M. Montgomery, and Georgette Heyer, and even Miss Read. No swords, no car chases, no bad guys and nary a dead body. Just wonderful, fascinating stories about people.

Okay, I’ll grant you that writers of these stories don’t often populate the weekly bestseller lists. But I have a hunch that they are disproportionately represented on the long-sellers list. Which is all to the good, because it means their books are going to be around for a long time for the likes of me to enjoy.

Life, the Universe, and Character-Driven Stories. It’s all about the people.


8 thoughts on “On Character-Driven Stories, or: It’s About the People”

  1. You know I’m in agreement with you on this! No matter what genre I try to write, my stories inevitably turn into character studies. Even when it comes to watching superhero movies, my favorites are the ones that are more about the inner lives of the heroes (the first two Captain America movies) and less about the action sequences (um, all the rest).

    Which reminds me, I need to add Miss Read’s Fairacre books to my Christmas wish list. I’ve collected all the Thrush Greens, now on to the next series …

      1. I remember occasionally pulling them off my mom’s shelf and trying them as a teen, only to give them up when nothing ever HAPPENED. Now my collection is larger than hers and she borrows some every time she visits. So it goes.

      2. There are some books/authors that need growing into. Narnia was one such for me – didn’t like it as a child, then discovered it in Grade 7 and got hooked.

  2. Some of my favorite books from the English Canon are character driven books. Look at “The Great Gatsby” or anything by Jane Austen, or “Wuthering Heights”, or “Jane Eyre”, or anything by Margaret Laurence, and what about William Shakespeare–although there was lots of dead and dying and haunting and murdering and cackling witches. If the characters in a novel don’t have the strength to stand on their own, then they don’t lend to the action in the plot…or support it. If not, all the reader is left with is blood and guts porn–and some people like that kind of thing, but I don’t. “Frankenstein” had its moments of terror, but it had complex characters moving the plot along. Same with Kafka. If Gregor Samsa wasn’t a complicated personality surrounded by grotesque characters, then that first morning when he woke up as a cockroach would not have been as hideously funny…or later as pathetic. Yep…it’s all about the characters.

    1. I don’t know that I’d call Shakespeare character driven – he certainly has lots of “plot” in his stories (some of it weirder than others). But of course his characters and their inner conflicts is what makes the stories. I guess in any good story you need to have the interaction of the two – it just depends on which side it’s weighted more heavily one with slot one can shove them in. I’d say a great lot of “literary fiction” falls into the character-driven category.

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