I promised myself I’d keep these posts short. Crisp. To the point.
Then this one came out, and I said, hey, I’m talking to myself on this one, but it might be important to you, too.
I keep hearing the instructors in my MFA program use that familiar term, character driven. A book or screenplay is character driven when the characters are people we get involved with, and we want to read the story because we really enjoy spending time with the characters. We want to take the journey with this particular character, at this moment in time, because we want to know what the character’s going to do next.
In character-driven stories, our hero, in particular, has depth. Effective characters are uniquely familiar, interesting, and worthy of our time — because they fascinate us. We want to be fascinated. After all, we actually read books as if we’re the POV character.
So who does my reader want to be?
That’s the character to write.
My hero must be likeable. Flawed, but still good to be around, as a cathartic figure for the reader. According to the definition of catharsis, being in the hero’s mind needs to bring purification and a purging of emotions—especially pity and fear—resulting in renewal and restoration. Yes, going through horrific emotions is part of story telling. But I believe that, in the end, our reader wants to be renewed in some way. Restored. With a fresh look on life.
So, hey, we’d better know our characters. Really well. Especially when we’re drafting, our character must speak to us, walk around with confidence, and take us through the story. Because to create a fresh story, we can’t push the characters around. We have to let them lead us.
For me, putting our character in the driver’s seat is a lot like putting a teen behind the wheel after driver’s training. I have to trust that they’ve had enough background to make good decisions. But that trust won’t happen unless the kid goes to classes and puts in time behind the wheel with the instructor. I wouldn’t dare put a kid on the road without classes and practice.
Same thing with our characters. When drafting, we have to trust our character to make good moves on the page. Trust happens when our character has enough thought behind him or her — enough time in the author’s mind, becoming. Having dimension and range of emotions. Having issues and beliefs. Having what if moments. What if my character fell from grace? What if my character won the lottery? What if my character’s best friend died? What would he or she do?
I’ve found that only after the right amount of time with the character — exploring beliefs, testing behavior, and answering hypotheticals — can make the piece become character driven.
So if your story isn’t flowing, maybe your character needs to return to driver’s ed. Spend more time with your character. What is he really like? What does she really believe? Walk the character through a new scene. Put the character totally out of his element, and see what happens.
Then take the character back out on the road.