Ask any writer, what makes them stand apart from other writers, and you will almost certainly hear “my stories are character driven.” It was something I also used to say (you may even find old pieces where I say it floating around on this site). But let’s think about something – if everyone is saying it, does this really set your writing apart?
“Well,” I hear you saying, “everyone may be saying it, but that doesn’t mean their stories really are character driven.” Fair point. But in my experience reading books, many authors do indeed seem to spend a ton of time, perhaps even too much, ensuring the reader knows that his/her characters really are unique. They also spend a ton of time in the character’s head or explaining the character’s actions to make sure the reader sees the growth of the character.
And yet… many of them absolutely fail as a story.
“A story is not character driven. A story is not plot driven. Like many chemical reactions, a story takes two distinct elements and bonds them together into something entirely different.”
I think we writers sometimes tend to be victims of two situations we create ourselves. We are determined to be “original” (something I have already discussed some problems within an earlier blog you can read here) and we think we are above what we see in cinema all the time. You know, that all action-flicks, rom-coms, thrillers… whichever genre, all feel so alike. It’s so bad that even Hollywood actors and writers make fun of it themselves, like in this clip from Big Bang Theory:
Look, the criticism is fair. I’m not going to sit here and tell you every Die Hard movie is a unique masterpiece, or that 10 Things I Hate About You isn’t incredibly predictable. But if you take a moment back from doing the easy thing – criticizing – and actually take a moment to look at why writers and producers keep making these movies, it becomes incredibly apparent: people like them. It doesn’t matter how many times they’ve heard the story before, as long as there are a few surface-level changes, they will enjoy it.
“…no matter how unique or interesting a character is, if the character is not doing something interesting, why should anyone care? “
These same people who enjoy the same old story also rave when someone does introduce something unique and with fascinating characters. They sing its praises about how it “separates itself” from others in the genre. This shows something incredibly important – they are not ignorant of the shortcomings of your “average” story. And there is something else to remember – how many stories proud of their unique characters (there are many) are despised by many people who love a good story.
It actually makes sense and it is something every writer needs to remember – no matter how unique or interesting a character is, if the character is not doing something interesting, why should anyone care? “My characters are unique!” That is what our mothers used to tell us to make us feel better. “You’re special!” – just like everybody else. Being unique is easy. Doing something unique is another story (pun intended). What do those action-flicks and rom-coms with the same old predictable characters have in common? The situation (plot) they are in is something we do not actually get to experience in our daily lives.
We must never forget that storytelling in any medium – literary, film, comics, games – is a form of entertainment. There are almost 7 billion unique people on this planet. So why should they care about a handful of new ones your introducing? If all your characters have are unique identities, tell them to get in line with everyone else. That alone is not entertaining. If they aren’t doing anything interesting, they can be super unique, but they will not be able to show it and still be boring your readers.
A writer who spends too much time trying to come up with a character-driven plot would be like an old shipwright putting all of his effort into the sails and forgetting to make masts strong enough to support them. A story is not character driven. A story is not plot driven. Like many chemical reactions, a story takes two distinct elements and bonds them together into something entirely different. Water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen but is nothing like either. Hydrogen and oxygen both would energize a fire alone, but they extinguish one together. Give a man suffering from dehydration an infinite supply of both and he will still die of thirst, but combine just a little of each and he lives.
Being unique is easy. Doing something unique is another story
Don’t like my dry chemical comparison. Use Yin and Yang. Want something more romantic? A day is made of sunlight and moonlight. The point is still the same: if you are focusing on being character driven, you are almost certainly not giving your plot the attention it needs. While the same is true of the reverse, few writers are guilty of underestimating the importance of good character development.
Don’t focus on creating a character-driven story. Focus on creating a good story – which of course includes strong characters.
Eric Sparks is the author of the High Fantasy series Tales of Lugon. Book one, Truth Unearthed, has been well received by readers and critics alike.