Character-driven stories explore the human psyche, shining light into all its crevices while delving deep into relationship dynamics and intrapersonal struggles. In the literary world, this is usually associated with a less complex plot that is used primarily to build character. However, that does not have to be the case. On the flip side, plot-driven stories are generally associated with less intricate characters, but this does not have to be so.
NY Book Editors has a great way of putting it:
Most writers naturally lean towards one writing style. But the best writers understand that they must balance their preferred storytelling to create a satisfying tale. By recognizing your writing preference, you will be able to identify the areas you need to balance.
I thought of a different approach to the term character-driven—what if we interpret it as characters who propel the story forward, taking on a voice of their own and having a say in the plot? My inspiration for this perspective came from one of my favorite set of novels, the historical romance/fantasy series Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. While writing the first book, her feisty, opinionated, feministic protagonist altered the story in a monumental way.
Gabaldon knew from the beginning that she wanted to write a historical fiction taking place in mid-18th century Scotland. While writing, her protagonist Claire would not stop being the strong-willed, bold woman she is and constantly uttered phrases like bloody hell. This did not fit the expectations for females of this era, which led to a creative breakthrough: Claire became a former WWII combat nurse who passes through the ancient enchanted stones of Craig na Dun, time traveling from 1946 to 1743. Gabaldon’s protagonist completely transformed the story—without the element of fantasy, I doubt it would have become the internationally bestselling series and television show it is today.
With this in mind, I wanted to hear what KWL authors had to say about character-driven stories. Authors across genres tell their tales of how the beings that lived in their imagination came alive to influence their novels.
David Jay Collins on Summerdale
“In Summerdale, the first novel of my LGBT horror trilogy, Lucas burst into the draft and wouldn’t pipe down until I set him in the plot as a secondary character. Now I can’t imagine the story without him. Summerdale is about four gay men, four addictions, and one landlord from Hell. Lucas navigates through the main characters’ lives with his own motivations, which aren’t clear to the reader. As I write the second novel, I’m constantly in awe of what Lucas is revealing to me about himself, and the others. His seemingly innocent actions provide subtle foreshadowing that would be impossible to achieve through a main character.”
The Muskoka Novels by Gabriele Wills
Carefully crafted characters are at the core of Gabriele Wills’ historical fiction. In her latest saga, her engaging, unforgettable characters immerse readers in their privileged world as their lives begin to unravel with the onset of the Great War in the first book – The Summer Before the Storm. Ria and her fellow characters evolve in the social and historical context of their world leaving the reader with a compelling sense of their time and place. “These characters feel like friends, I’m completely invested in their lives – I’ve shared their joys and sorrows, their tears, laughter and pain” The Eclectic Reader
Dahlia Donovan on Pure Dumb Luck
“If Pure Dumb Luck had a genre, it would be ‘best friends in love travel the world’. Eddie and Woody are two country boys who decide to go on a grand tour across the globe after winning the lottery. It’s a Male-Male Rom-Com filled with laugh-out-loud moments, tempting foods, and wild adventures. Pure Dumb Luck was most definitely driven by the characters. It started with both main characters. Their friendship, easy-going attitude, and sense of humor drove every single moment of the novella. The moments of laughter definitely seemed to write themselves, almost like having an out-of-body experience while writing.”
Rachel Tamayo on Break My Bones
“I wrote this for them. The women that lived in the darkness and perhaps do still. Keep fighting, and don’t stop trying to break free into the light once more.” Told from the alternating first-person views, Break My Bones is a dark domestic thriller with an epic twist. It’s a tale of being broken and recovering because you must; it’s a story of love that rips a man apart from the inside out; and a novel of a man who struggles against the rage that seems to hold him together, and the obsessive love that threatens to tear him apart. Author of the award-winning thriller, Crazy Love, Rachael Tamayo is a former 911 operator and police dispatcher who has firsthand experience with these true-to-life issues.
Lori L. Robinett on Fatal Obsession
“My book, Fatal Obsession, began as the nugget of an idea, inspired by research being done at the University of Missouri using nanotechnology to attack cancer cells: What if nanotechnology used to fight cancer could be implanted in a fetus while it was developing? Before I knew it, my main character, Sophie, began whispering in my ear at the most inopportune times. Before I knew what was happening, my fingers typed the story and Sophie revealed her secrets. She had been raised in a foster home. She was small in stature, but tough, and enjoyed sparring in her kickboxing class. Writing a woman who was 8 months pregnant and on the run was difficult, but Sophie was up to the challenge!”
Rebecca Chastain on Tiny Glitches
“The main character of this romantic comedy is Eva. Eva was born with a curse that causes her emotions to destroy all electronics in her vicinity. She is determined to keep her curse a secret from the world, afraid that if others found out, the majority would ostracize her and the rest would want to turn her into a lab rat … She does everything she can to hide her abnormality from the world. It becomes harder when a blackmailer threatens to expose her secret unless she hides a stolen baby elephant. When confronted with a blackmailer, a normal person might go to the police … However, Eva’s unique motivation steers her (and the plot) in exciting, dangerous, and unpredictable directions. The whole point of the novel is for the reader to get to live vicariously through Eva’s emotions on this whirlwind adventure.”
M. Billiter on A Divided Mind
“Tara is a single mom, who has crafted her life and those of her children toward optimal success. Her choices always surprised me. Ninety percent of her choices and actions are driven by a deep need to keep her family’s image in check and in turn shield her children from their past. When her son, Branson confesses, he’s hearing voices, the house of cards she’s carefully crafted, falls. And, again, she surprised me. I soon realized that Tara didn’t care if you liked her or not––her son was all that mattered. And in that desperation to save her child, she made rash decisions, often spoke without thinking, and fumbled her way through her son’s illness, which made her relatable in a way I hadn’t expected.”
Barbara G. Tarn on Ravjeer the Vampire
Turned into a bloodsucker by an ancient Celtic vampire, Rajveer, a proud Rajput warrior of a Suryavanshi clan in 14th century India, becomes almost invulnerable. Immortal, he loses his family to war and time and travels through northern India, seeing history unfold. Threatened by both human wars and evil vampires, can he remain true to his sworn vow not to take human lives? “I enjoyed writing this unconventional vampire. When I finally made it to the fortress of Chittorgarh, destroyed a couple of centuries later by Akbar, my nice Indian guide even made a detour to show me the Kirti Stambh … [which] features at the beginning of this novel. I asked my Indian friend and cover artist to check the facts so I would portray accurately a Hindu warrior of the time and studied a number of books and the internet.”
KWL loves when authors contribute to the blog. Look out for prompts in our monthly newsletter, and contact firstname.lastname@example.org for blog inquiries!
Amy is the Author Engagement Intern for KWL. She helps answer author questions and programs the book promotions and deals on the Kobo site. She comes up with creative blog content on the craft and business of self-publishing, book news, and more. Amy studied Social Sciences at the University of Ottawa and Publishing at Ryerson University. She has worked as a content author of literature study guides and an online literature educator.