Character-Driven Stories and Other Rules of Writing

My uncle, who is a wine appreciator, is amused by the “red wine with meat, white wine with fish” rule generally applied by those of us who don’t know anything about wine. The rule is probably generally true and a good start for beginners, but it’s such a drastic oversimplification that you’d be greatly diminishing the overall experience by forcing yourself to adhere to it, not to mention missing the opportunity to share a bottle of wine with friends at dinner because one of them ordered fish instead of red meat.

I think that beginning writers are often taught rules like this: ones that appear to be good rules to people who don’t yet have a strong understanding of the nuances of the craft, but are actually hobblingly narrow and consequently ignored as often as not by experienced writers, who understand the principles behind the rules, but also know why they don’t always apply.

For instance, in school you were probably taught not to use the passive voice. I recall middle school classes teaching passive voice as an actual grammar mistake, along with comma splices and pronoun-antecedent disagreement. I also recall my beginning German class protesting learning the German passive voice on the grounds that you’re never supposed to use the passive voice anyway. I now know that passive voice isn’t a grammar mistake at all, but merely a sentence structure that is used far more frequently than it should be. By moving the person performing the act from the subject of the sentence to the indirect object, it tends to make writing more dull, so it should be used infrequently–but there are times when it’s not only appropriate, but the best way to communicate the idea.

Then there’s the ubiquitous “show, don’t tell.” This one gets hammered into peoples’ heads in every fiction workshop ever held: Always describe what’s happening! Never just say that it happened! Perhaps this is just my personal style coming through, but I’ve never had trouble showing what’s going on. I have trouble telling. I can narrate through the heroine’s fateful meeting with the mysterious stranger who turns out to be a cyborg just fine, but then I get hung up describing her drive home afterwards.

The fact is that there are things that happen in any story that would be completely dull to describe. People go to work, do chores, and commute. You can skip these parts, but often they require a mention or else you risk making your story feel like a hopscotch from one relevant moment to the next. If your book covers any significant period of time, you need to be able to generally describe what went on over a week or a month without resorting to a blow-by-blow account. I’ve come to appreciate writers who can transition seamlessly between detailed showing and general telling while keeping the author engaged with both.

The final rule I’d like to discuss is character-driven stories.  This is the most difficult one because it seems like such a sensible guideline.  Not using passive voice is something kids learn at school; “show, don’t tell” is taught to beginning fiction writers; but writing character-driven, rather than plot-driven, stories is a rule that even experienced writers are encouraged to follow religiously.

Briefly, a plot-driven story is one where the story advances based on stuff happening: A war breaks out, aliens invade, a rich relative dies, and so on.  The main characters didn’t cause the main events of the book, although the meat of the story consists of their reaction to them.

A character-driven story, on the other hand, is carried along by the characters’ actions.  It may be kicked off by a profession of love or some other unexpected action; as other characters react, they cause the next plot event, and so on.

There are plenty of reasons why the latter is generally favored.  The former can easily become a story that moves “at the speed of plot,” where characters seem unable to accomplish anything because they have to wait for the next plot event to happen (think horror movies where no one leaves or calls the police).  Characters can be shoehorned into doing things they would never actually  do (such as a pacifist character killing someone) because the plot requires it.  And finally, some major blunders, such as the deus ex machina, can only occur in plot-driven stories.

However, character-driven stories are not the silver bullet that vanquishes bad storytelling.  These stories do, after all, still have plots, and those plots can still be poorly designed.  The shoehorning problem is actually more pervasive in character-driven stories, where the character needs to perform the action to keep the story going, than in plot-driven ones, where the plot keeps marching on regardless of what the character does.  Consider poorly written romances where the hero awkwardly switches from hating the heroine to falling in love with her, or improbably chooses the ugly-duckling girl next door instead of the diva he’s seemed to prefer all along: the plot is completely character-driven, but the character is acting against his own characterization.

There are a couple of other reasons why I’m skeptical of the character-driven rule.  First, it introduces a bias towards certain genres.  It’s far easier to make a romance or a realistic-fiction drama character driven than an epic or a science fiction tale, making the rule feel almost like a sneaky way for critics to reinforce their existing bias against primarily plot-driven genres.  Second, it can lead to pigeonholing stories instead of actually critiquing them.  One can simply say “This story is plot-driven” and consider that a sufficient explanation of why it doesn’t work, rather than properly dissecting the cliches, cardboard characters, and other problems that are actually plaguing the story.

In fact it’s difficult to divide books into character-driven and plot-driven categories, because virtually every story has elements of both.  Consider Great Expectations.  Pip is always falling into circumstances outside his control, a sign of a pl0t-driven story, but the circumstances are themselves caused by other characters in the story (mainly Magwitch and Miss Havisham), although this fact is not always immediately apparent.  It’s also common for a primarily character-driven story to be initiated by a plot-driven event.  An example would be One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: while the story is mainly driven by the interactions between McMurphy, Nurse Ratched, and the other patients, the initial circumstance of McMurphy being sent to the mental hospital is a plot-driven event.

To summarize, none of these rules are exactly wrong.  In fact, each of them is probably true the majority of the time, and a story that used no passive voice, consistently showed instead of telling, and was completely character-driven would likely be an engaging work to read.  However, a good writer needs to be able to see beyond these rules.  The end goal is not to write while skillfully applying the rules, but rather to write well, whether that involves following the rules or not.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Character-Driven Stories and Other Rules of Writing

  1. Great article. Thank you! I feel much better about my plot driven fantasy novel now!

  2. Pingback: Kvothe and Ged « No More Dead Parents

  3. Pingback: Katz’s Mary Sue Test « No More Dead Parents

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