Character vs Plot-driven stories
All stories are driven by conflict. All great stories have compelling characters and an intriguing plot. You can have a fantastic plot, but you won’t have much of a readership if the character turns off the readers. Conversely, you can have a terrific main character, but if the MC has nothing interesting to do, the reader will put down your book.
Many genres lend themselves to character-driven stories. In a character-driven story, the character experiences internal and external conflict that forces them to change. They might regress and maladapt leading to a tragedy or they might overcome the conflict and lead to a happy ending. Romances tend to lean heavily on character development because the character needs to address a deep hurt or personal trauma to be in the right heart space and headspace to engage in a romantic relationship.
A character-driven story focuses on the emotional and psychological aspects of making a decision. These books don’t need to be heavy on internals, but they show more thought processes and emotional reluctance to try something new or work towards a goal.
An external event will provoke the need for change, and the rest of the book is spent with the character thinking and feeling their way through the change. Many character-driven books have characters that want to change the status quo even if they aren’t aware they want to change. In many romances, the main character is perfectly content with having a new sexual partner every night. There’s an event that provokes an internal change—perhaps their best friend got married or had their first child, perhaps the death of parent instigates some soul-searching, perhaps it’s an illness and the need to confront their mortality. Whatever the provocation, it creates a need for internal reflection. That’s not to say introspection is easy or comes naturally. A great many books have main characters that don’t want to engage in the kind of internal work that will stop them from making the same mistakes over and over. Their journey in improvements of self-awareness is the book.
Character-driven plots need the following items:
- An interesting and rich backstory. When the MC addresses one issue from their past, the story can’t end. They need to dig deeper to find the true root of the problem
- Be presented with obstacles and conflicts that provoke strong emotional responses
- Be active in addressing internal matters (with increasing self-awareness as the story progresses)
Have a past that addresses a Universal Truth to ensure the readers relate to the characters. A Universal Truth is something that all individuals across cultures and periods can identify as part of the human experience. These include: the fear of being left out, grief, falling short of a dream, cultural norms that you disagree with, and so on
A plot-driven story focuses on external events. Plot-driven stories have faster pacing to keep the reader turning pages. Mysteries, thrillers and action-adventure tend to be plot-based. Consider the movie The Edge with Alex Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins. Both characters are compelling, and they are thrust into the harsh Alaskan wilderness. There’s plenty of internal and interpersonal conflict between the men as they brave harsh elements and dangerous wildlife, but it’s external events that drive the plot. The men fly out to hunt bears, but their plane crashes. They test their wits to survive the cold weather, injuries, and hunger while being tracked and stalked by a bear. External events force the characters to respond and adapt.
In a plot-driven story, the characters didn’t want to change. Circumstances fall on their heads and force change. Consider the beginning of a James Bond film where Bond is perfectly content at a casino, on vacation, or with a woman he’s picked up. A villain commits a crime or is about to commit a crime, and Bond must stop the villain. It’s the same principle with action-hero/heroine movies in which the heroes/heroines are more than happy not to risk their lives protecting others but rise to the occasion every time there is danger.
Excellent plot-driven stories have the following elements:
- challenges that force the MC to increase their skill sets
- a worthy antagonist or villain that outsmarts and outmanoeuvres the MC
- clear external provocations that increase in intensity and complexity of the problems the MC must address
I want to thank @DonnaSagerCowa1 for her suggestion on the topic.
Readers can reach me on Twitter @reneegendron
Please note that Seven Points of Contact is a contemporary sports romance with plenty of humour. Release January 22, 2022. I’m looking for advance readers. Here’s an excerpt.
A fair number of romances start with the main characters not knowing one another. They can be insta-love, slow-burn, or gradual meeting of the minds and hearts, leading to romance. What happens when two characters have been in love for years, decades even, but the spark between them has faded?
Romances thrive on conflict. For a romance to rekindle (perhaps a second-chance trope, a loveless marriage trope that becomes a loving marriage trope, among other tropes), there needs to be conflict and change.
One or both characters need to experience an internal conflict that provokes a change in the relationship’s status quo. Let’s consider a second chance at love. This trope is often portrayed as two high school sweethearts reuniting after many years. Sometimes the couple dated through university, but their interests diverged, and they broke up. One wanted to pursue a career full-on, the other wanted to start a family or travel or some other interest that pitted them against their love interest. Many years later, they meet again, and things have changed. Perhaps the dream career turned out to be a nightmare, or years of travelling left a character feeling rootless. Whatever the circumstances, they are back together but so much has changed it’s unclear if their feelings are genuine or they remember the good old days.
Here are the beats that need to happen:
- they meet again by chance or through a special event (mutual friends’ marriage, high school reunion, etc.)
- a period of uncertainty as each character perceives the love interest as they were twenty years prior
- an outside event demonstrates a change in the love interest (they are no longer hot-heads, more considerate of others, etc.)
- the love interest notices the change but is unconvinced it is real or permanent
- there’s back and forth between the love interests as to what these changes mean
- an event triggers the love interest, and they revert in full or in part to their old selves
- the love interest experiences an internal conflict as to grow or revert
- a key decision is made to grow
- having embraced growth, both characters believe their relationship can work this time, and things go well
- a black moment that challenges personal growth and the ability of the couple to stay together
- each character leans and transforms into a better person
- the couple tackle the main issue and find their new happily ever after
What’s the spark in that? How is romance rekindled?
There are the superficial changes where one partner was turned off by the other’s weight gain or physical changes as they age. The partner matures and changes their perception of their love interest to appreciate that love isn’t just physical. It’s what the other person represents—kindness, love, good memories, shared values, building a future together, raising a family, etc.
However, the more profound the change in the character, the bigger the spark. A character that has pursued a dream so aggressively as to ignore everyone else in their life may wake up one day in the hospital having suffered a heart attack. That wake-up call provokes introspection and life changes.
The introspection and life changes provide the author ample opportunities to explore internal conflict (the struggle to eat healthier in a character’s mid-40s when they spent a lifetime on coffee and take-out). Internal conflicts also provide unique insights, a strong character voice, and enriching experiences for readers because the character arc is different.
To rekindle a romance, start with the conflict that tore them apart. Explore the conflict and figure out ways to make that conflict pop up again throughout the story until the characters resolve the issue behind the conflict. Determine ways the characters can grow out of the conflict, what they learn, what they experience, how their perceptions change, and what prompts the change. Play around with the push-pull of how the characters figure out their new selves and the new status of their relationship.
It’s romance. The advice is always the same: start with the conflict.
Which stories have you written that involve a rekindling of love? Let me know on Twitter @reneegendron. I’ve written one called the Long Wait for A Muse Bouche Review and you can read it here.
Thank you @SStaatz for the topic suggestion.
I write romances and strive to create realistic characters. Yes, I do write grand romantic gestures, but I lean on the side of plausible—a romantic dinner, a public declaration of affection at a party, and so on. One aspect that I incorporate in my writing is medical conditions.
Characters can have an array of medical conditions, from an illness to injury to a genetic disorder. Some medical conditions are life-threatening, others require regular maintenance with physiotherapy or counselling, medication or surgery, and others have no upkeep.
Characters are more than a medical condition. Maybe your MC’s knee is busted, and they can’t run anymore (at all, or they are significantly slower). The damaged knee impairs your MC’s ability to catch the antagonist. But the damaged knee can also impact character development. The obvious impact is on personal frustration. Perhaps the MC enjoyed going on 10km runs but can’t anymore. Perhaps there’s a constant pain in the knee that keeps the MC up on rainy nights. These developments drag down the character with regret, frustration, and anger. Anger that they can’t do what they enjoy doing.
Let’s flip the situation. The medical condition may have obligated your MC to change hobbies. The broader range of experience gives them more tools to address the plot. Let’s say your MC can’t go on runs because of a bum knee, but they do Tai Chi or ride horses or swim. If a person does Tai Chi, they might have improved powers of focus and emotional self-regulation. If they ride horses, they work different muscle groups. Working with large animals also gives them a different perspective on life. And, if they swim 2k a day, well, they have incredible endurance.
My point is, there are opportunities to write more balanced characters in which medical conditions aren’t uniquely portrayed as impediments. I’ve known many people who have experienced extremely traumatic events. They’ve survived depression, suicidal episodes, and PTSD. It was brutal for them to live the experience, work through it, and find ways of managing it daily. However, outside of the episodes, they gained profound insight. They’ve gained insight and wisdom and (some, not all) have turned their experiences into products and services to help others.
It’s easy to write the flip side where a medical condition is motivation for revenge. It’s a little more nuanced to weave in medical conditions as a source of positive motivation and resilience.
In my fantasy series, I have a General named Roderick. His first wife died, and he became an alcoholic. Whenever there’s an event that reminds him of his first wife, he lapses into a bender for days, sometimes weeks. The alcoholism has significant impacts on his personal life and job, not to mention the city he’s charged to protect. Throughout the fantasy series, his alcoholism comes up, and there are times where he has more insight when he’s blind drunk. There are moments when Roderick is drunk, and another soldier steps up into a leadership role. The second soldier takes a radically different strategy than what Roderick would have done, and there are different consequences on the battle and the town. Some consequences are beneficial, and others aren’t.
In my contemporary sports romance, Seven Points of Contact (release Fall 2021), Jonas has a knee injury that keeps him from playing a sport he loves. The injury weighs down his self-esteem, and he finds himself on a trajectory he didn’t want to take. His life takes a few more twists and turns, and after a series of devastating events, he returns to his hometown. He regrets and finds strength. Without his injury, he wouldn’t have had the skills and experiences to help Miranda, his love interest.
What medical conditions afflict your MC? How do they impact the plot and character development?
Reach out to me on Twitter @reneegendron to continue to conversation.
Fluff. It’s the distractions, the pointless subplots, the loose ends, the unnecessary details that distract a reader and diminishes their enjoyment of your work. How can a writer ensure that a book is engaging through the entire story?
Conflict. Make sure there is enough conflict in your story to keep your character busy. Make sure the conflict challenges your MC and forces them to change. If the conflict is quickly resolved, then it’s uninteresting to read. Readers want to see your characters squirm, and they want to see them dig deep and muster the courage to try again.
I’ll focus on external conflict, but the principle works the same for internal conflict. Make sure the conflict requires several try/fail cycles. Each time the character tries to resolve the conflict, they fail but learn something. When the character tries again, make sure to make the problem more complicated, so they aren’t always doing the same thing over and over again.
I struggled with this in A Gift of Stars. It’s my first fantasy romance book and the first in a series of 29 (which are all written but in need of editing). Remember, I aim to write 50% romance and 50% non-romance plots. One of the main problems with the non-romance arc is that the MCs’ problems (attacks from raiders) are predictable and don’t force a change on the part of the MCs. I have 13 raider attacks of various sizes throughout the book, and I’ve been mulling over which to cut, which to reduce, and of those that remain, how to make each attack unique.
This article is as much a service to you as it is to me as I figure out how to sharpen that fantasy arc. Thanks for reading.
All right. Thanks for letting me take that detour. I hope it didn’t cause the plot of this post to sag.
Let’s say your MC has to venture out into space with a platoon of soldiers to deal with an antagonist. During their mission, they are attacked by pirates, and two of the platoon members die. One of those who died was a medic, and now the crew has lost a core survival skill. Along their journey, they go through an asteroid belt, and someone is injured. Under normal circumstances, the injury would be easily treated, but the medic has died, and the simple enough injury isn’t so simple to the non-medic crew. Oh, did I mention the injured crew member is also the pilot?
Such missions usually have a depth of skill to ensure there are a backup medic and pilot, but you can arrange your story so that the back-ups don’t have the same degree of competence or confidence. The difference in skills creates new problems, a new conflict between crew members, and new issues the MC must address to fulfil their mission.
If you wanted to write a longer book, you could add additional conflict between the characters. One character has access to the engine room and has locked everyone out because they are having a personal crisis. The other characters must access the engine to repair it. If they don’t repair it within one day, it will overheat and break down, leaving them stranded. Note that I added a ticking clock (one day). You can add additional complications by having an infestation of the food supply, and several of the crew members can’t eat what remains because of the differences in their biology. That’s another ticking clock, and that will change the interpersonal dynamics of the crew.
A word of caution. Don’t create problems for the sake of creating problems. Make sure that each problem relates to a fear or weakness of the MC. The more problems you throw at a character’s weak spots, the more you force growth or regression. Character development isn’t linear. People regress to bad habits and behaviour when stressed. Stress them out. Have their father call at the worst possible time. Have the boss move up the deadline of a project, which conflicts with a required medical procedure. Have the MC’s child fall ill, and the MC’s car breaks down on the way to the doctor. The MC doesn’t have the money to take a cab, it’s too far to walk, and the child’s just thrown up on the MC’s shoes. Oh, it’s windy and hot, it’s dinner time, but the MC hasn’t eaten since last night. Oh, and the boss texted the MC that they’re fired.
In the sequence outlined above, there’s a reasonable progression of events that make the situation plausible. Even in a fantasy or sci-fi setting, the events need to make sense. The order in which the problems and conflict happen also need to make sense. Usually, it’s a minor problem that snowballs into bigger ones. However, you can structure your story to start with a larger problem the MC is confident they can handle, and a progression of smaller problems drown the MC and the last, tiny, small, easily fixable problem of running out of mint tea, snaps the MC’s patience and they spiral downward. One problem too many.
People want to see that progression and root for the MC who finally stands up for themselves or cry for the MC who sees their lifelong dreams turn to vapour.
A second way of writing longer pieces without adding fluff is to force the character to choose. By the third or fourth chapter, the MC is presented with a difficult choice. The author can dedicate one quarter or half of the book addressing the consequences of the choice and the character’s efforts to get back to where they were at the ¼ mark to resolve the central conflict.
In forcing the character to make a choice, you can also change the outcome of the book. The choice can become the best thing that’s happened to them or the worst. The choice can damage key relationships for the MC, and the MC spends the rest of the book trying to repair trust. The choice can have explosive consequences on an environment or planet.
A choice must be tied closely with stakes. Stakes refer to what is gained and lost. Gains and losses come in many different forms. They can be a personal sacrifice of not having a career. It can be one error that costs them the scholarship and their only chance out of their poverty. Stakes can relate to self-worth, finances, family and friends (loss of), environment, culture, and community. Some characters are motivated by gain, and others are motivated by fear (of loss). Figure out your character’s motivations and play around with them to see how they relate to choices.
Let’s take, for example, Bertram. He’s the lead character in my first western historical romance. He faces a choice of telling the woman he intends to marry who he truly is or carry out hiding for the rest of his life. He’s hidden his true self for 30 years, and the one other person to whom he’s revealed his real identity brutally rejected him. Ruthanna, Bertram’s romantic interest, has the choice of fulfilling her father’s dying wish and securing her mother’s and sister’s financial future or saving Mack, Bertram’s brother.
These choices have an emotional, psychological, financial, and/or moral consequence on the characters. They are not to be taken lightly, and the decisions force character growth and the book’s direction.
How will you alter your try/fail cycle to lengthen your story? How will you sequence your problems (minor to significant, catastrophic to minor, personal problems first followed by work problems, etc.)? How will you manage your stakes? What choice do you force your MC to make?
Let’s keep the conversation going on Twitter. Reach out to me @reneegendron
I’d like to thank @_levangelis_ for the topic suggestion.
It’s a long title, I know. I’m used to writing 80,000-100,000-word books, not catchy marketing slogans. Bear with me. I promise the article will be more interesting than its title.
In a previous post, I discussed the importance of conflict to keep the reader engaged. I also mentioned that a conflict evolves until the character learns to address it or fails, and the book ends in a tragedy.
Let’s turn our attention to power. Power can be coercive (use of violence and threats of violence to achieve a goal). Power can be non-coercive (a person held in high esteem in a community may make requests, and a person fulfils them out of their own volition). Power can be in your face (soldiers from an invading army marching down a street). Power can be subtle (your sister has your parents wrapped around her little finger no matter what she does).
Power can be harmful, and it can be empowering. It depends on the wielder of the power and what they do with it. Let’s consider a nine-year-old MC who is bullied. The MC can use coercive power to stop the bullying (punch the bully in the face). They can use non-coercive power (reason with the bully, tell their parents, or inform their school principal). Here’s where power gets interesting. The nine-year-old can ask to arrange circumstances for other, larger children to be present the next day to protect them (subtle use of power). Or the MC can walk home with their two older siblings (obvious use of power).
Power is an essential concept in writing because it’s the consequence of a conflict. Let’s take a look at Star Wars. A group of rebels fight against an oppressive government. The empire exerts power in all four ways mentioned. The obvious ways are violence and coercion. It’s a war, and people fight and die. The empire also has non-coercive means of exerting its influence by paying people to give them information. The loyalty between the emperor and the Sith is also a form of subtle power. The relationship between Qi’ra and Han Solo is another form of non-coercive power that ends in tragedy.
To craft exciting characters and stories, all forms of power need to be applied. Why? Even in cases of evil empires and oppression, the oppressor uses different forms of power. Why? Using in-your-face coercive force uses an incredible amount of energy, time, and effort. I don’t understand the economics of the Star Wars universe. It seems every movie has massive rebel and imperial fleets destroyed without obvious means to replenish them (particularly on the rebel side where they are always running from secret base to secret base).
The more violent the coercion, the more effort it takes. Coercion doesn’t always mean physical force in the form of armies. Coercion can also mean verbal or social pressures. Think of Regency romances where many plots revolve around the ‘ton’ and the ‘ball.’ All eyes follow MC1 around the ballroom, waiting for them to make a mistake—drop a napkin, stain their clothes, speak out of turn, dance with the wrong person (social norms with high personal stakes). There are many backhanded compliments, people looking down their noses at someone, exclusion because they aren’t from the right background, and a lot of effort is put into gossiping and keeping on top of who was invited to which party. These factors combine to create social coercion or, in modern terms, the fear of mission out (FOMO). To assuage this fear, people conform. Often, great characters are the ones who resist social coercion and forge their path.
Remember, power takes energy and effort to exert. If you wonder why certain people were popular in high school, it’s because they worked at it. The popular set spent a lot of time interacting, showing up for each other’s events and activities, communicating, and engaging in each other’s lives. That’s a lot of work, but they get their rewards.
The MC has a conflict with someone or something. The antagonist (sometimes villain, but I’ll use the term antagonist) may be a person, alien, animal, or weather pattern. The antagonist uses different forms of power to realise their goal.
Let’s look at the example of a natural disaster. The first power exerted is violence. The flood or flow of lava forces people to move from a location they didn’t want to leave. Although a natural disaster doesn’t have intelligence or intent, it also exerts subtle forms of power. These forms include changes in temperature, which have consequences on the MC. A natural disaster also has subtle forms of power. A change in the river’s current can have other indirect consequences on the MC, such as introducing a new species in the waterway (perhaps sharks now swim in freshwater).
Power isn’t absolute. The rebels keep fighting against the empire. One spouse has more power when it comes to money, but the other spouse wields more power when it comes to family and friends. Your MC is excellent at work and is at the top of their game, but their personal life is in shambles.
Power is conditional and situational and ebbs and flows with a character’s personal growth (or regression), resources, knowledge, physical environment, and circumstances. Think of any movie in which two characters trade places—usually, a billionaire character trades places with someone poor. Due to the story’s constraints, the rich person no longer has that power and flounders like a fish out of the water until they reassert themselves, redefine how they manifest power, and regain control over their lives).
When you play around with both the MC and the antagonist’s type of power, you create fuller characters and a more nuanced world. Villains who only know how to punch are two-dimensional. MCs who only know how to appeal to authority (their parent, boss, police, etc.) miss growth opportunities.
Take a look at your WIP and sort through the types of power your MC and antagonist use.
- Does your MC rely on only one type of power? Why is that?
- Does your antagonist rely on only one type of power? Why is that?
- What can you do to flesh out different types of power in your WIP?
- What consequences do these new types of power have on character development, plot development and world-building?
Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter with your answers.
I’ll be putting together a series of webinars on conflict. If you’re interested in knowing more, please send me a note that says ‘conflict’. If you sign up to my newsletter, you’ll receive a free writing exercise. Be sure to put ‘conflict’ in the comment box.