What is essential for a character-driven story - except, obviously, appearance?
Character-Driven Story Is Driven From Self-Concept
Self-concept is one of the strongest powers on earth. That's because so many people have self-concepts which put them at odds with the world around them. Self-concept drives the actions a person takes. Because it is so real, it is the essence of what we search for in our stories.
Self-Concept Drives Real People
People act from the foundation of their self-concept. They follow actions that are based in the belief of who they are. Your characters -- if they are to be real -- must do the same.
American Idol: (Failed) Self-Concept On Display
Consider those terrible, awful, singers, auditioning for a spot on American Idol, who sound worse than a cat with its tail caught in a door. One of the judges, like Keith Urban might ask, "Well, how do you think you did?"
"I think I killed it," the contestant answers.
The horrified judges stare. Blink. Blink. The cat with its tail caught in the door has evidently grabbed their tongues. They cannot speak. Why would this obviously terrible singer believe he is good?
One reason: self-concept.
Maybe the singer is joking? Sometimes you see the judges laugh because they cannot believe the singer is serious.
"You don't really believe you are good do you?"
The smile slides off the contestant's face. "Uh, yeah. I love to sing. I don't know how to do anything else." Self-concept is about to take a beating.
It is at this point, the contestant either cries (full on blubbering) -- realizing that maybe the self-concept is incorrect. Or, the more fascinating and often occurring response is that the contestant becomes angry.
Self-concept erupts. "Who are you to say? Some people like this kind of thing. My mother loves to hear me sing."
"Are you sure? Is she usually in the same room when you are singing? Maybe she's out at the grocery store or something."
Then, J Lo tries to ease the contestant down, "Baby, it's a no." The soft sell. Get the crazy guy out of here and make sure he gets his meds before he kills us all. Now that his self-concept is bruised and battered, anything could happen.
Example of how it might work in a story:
Push Character Up Against His/Her Self-Concept
What we need is Herman, an inveterate philatelist who is mid-thirties but still lives at home with his mother. He loves stamps. He knows the historical story behind each stamp he owns. He stares at them for hours memorizing small details of each. You learn that his stamp collection is worth a huge sum of money, but that doesn't matter to Herman. He loves stamps.
Meanwhile he pines away for the girl next door who is gloriously beautiful. (I'm having to tell here instead of showing you guy's tongues fall out of their mouths as she walks by, because telling is faster for this summary, but believe me, she's a knockout with curves in all the right places.)
Herman has a discussion with her as she's arriving home late one evening and trying to get rid of the guy who took her out.
"Why do you go out with him if you don't like him," Herman asks.
In a moment of honesty she explains that the gentleman has a huge net worth -- "that's right, Herman, he's rich and I like being pampered. I suppose you think I'm terrible" she says and brushes his face with a hand.
"I could never think you're terrible, Ophelia."
Ophelia gets into her house leaving Herman to contemplate. Instant realization of what he must do lands inside Herman's mind like a boulder smashing through a wall: I must sell my stamps.
They're worth millions. Ophelia would marry me.
But, he loves stamps. Now the faltering of the self-concept. He has to alter his self-concept. Sell the stamps, get the girl. But the stamps are the essence of who Herman is and his entire meaning in life.
You Can See How This Will Turn Out
Of course, you know how this is going to play out? Herman is going to sell the stamps, spend his money on wild living with the painted lady and then lose her too. Then, where will his self-concept be? Completely trashed. No stamps. No beautiful girl.
That's The Power of Self-Concept Playing Out In A Story
If you get the self-concept correct with your character it will drive your story and your story will be completely believable.
By definition, character-driven fiction is that where the plot takes a back seat to the characters.
What's essential? Everything that's in a plot-driven story, really, just in a different balance. There is usually a plot, but its purpose is to keep the readers engaged while the author digs into the characters. A teacher of mine said plot is the shiny keys that the author jingles as a distraction while he picks the reader's pocket. That is, plot is there to just keep the characters moving around while the author tells the stories of the characters.
I suspect that any story - even sci-fi, romance, crime - could be a character-driven story with that shift in balance. Tone down the plot, tone up the character. Dig into their minds and emotions. Make the finale more about an internal change than in an external achievement (even if you include a final achievement).
The best advice I have is the same advice I'd give almost everyone here at writers.stackexchange: go read a lot of books that are like what you want to write. Go read character-driven fiction. It's sometimes called literary fiction. It's Raymond Carver, John Updike, Lorrie Moore, Larry McMurtry, and gazillions of others.
I see three keys to character-driven stories:
- The character wants something strongly enough to struggle for it.
- The character has a unique reason for wanting the thing.
- Something about the character makes the struggle more difficult.
The first one is common to all stories.
I'm not sure the second one is essential, but it sure helps. Give the character a unique reason to want the thing, and to want it so badly. This distinguishes this character from others who, on the surface, might want the same thing.
The third factor is, for me, what distinguishes a more character-driven story from a more plot-driven story. In a plot-driven story, it's often enough that external forces keep the character from achieving the goal. But for character-driven stories, something about the character must be a key obstacle. That's what forces the character to change.
Those three things combine to tell the reader a great deal about the character.
My advice (Probably not helpful advice, but still)
Make the character relatable You have probably heard this a million times, but it is important. Many readers, including me, are turned off by relatable characters. And I've also learned "relatable" does not mean "average". The character could be the leader of an empire, but they're still human. They have good points, and they have flaws. It's a part of life. You have to flesh out your chatacters.
Do not let the character take backseat It is a character driven story. The character is as important as the plot, if not more. I have seen too often the following scenario: The plot takes over, and the character is forgotten. The character is still there, they're just leaning back and watching. This cannot happen.
Hope this helped!
The way I see it, there are two ways of deeply developing a character for a character driven story.
If you already have an idea for who the character is (say she's a housewife dealing with 'empty nest syndrome'), then you can write a short, or long, text describing what she does on an average day. Focus on how she does her tasks and any thoughts/reactions she might have. The aim is not for it to have a plot or for the text to be usable later on, it's just for you to get to know her. You can write one such 'day in the life' for before and after her children leave the house, for a week day, a weekend day and a festive day. This allows you to discover the character as you write, from how she feels about her husband to what she has in the fridge and whether she follows recipes or makes recipes up when looking at what's in the fridge.
Whether you have an idea of who she is or not, you can cook up a list of questions to fill in. Include the obvious name, age, date and place of birth, favourite stuff (colour, food, drink, music, ...), stuff she hates, pet peeves... Very importantly, think back to when this now adult character was a child and a teenager: what did she want from life then? Name favourite and least favourite subjects, games, music... see how she changed and matured as she grew. You can add zodiacal and chinese signs, a quote that defines her, a Christian virtue and vice (but don't let those two rule her soul). Add family members and friends and how she feels about them. Decide what she has in the fridge and on her bedside table, inside her handbag, what type of clothes she wears. How she met her husband, problems her children have and had (because Johnny wanted to be spiderman and decided to jump from the balcony or because Janey's labour was a breeze compared to Joey's, who incidentally turned out to be a bully in primary school) and how she deals / dealt with them. All of these should tell you a little bit about her and help you to create a fully fleshed character. Of course you don't have to fill in a six page quiz; you can just glance at the questions and answer the ones that catch your fancy and imagination.
To be honest there is a variation of point 1: start your story with the plot you have in mind (and by plot I include even the vague feels abandoned and useless - struggles to find a solution - solution creates havoc in family life - deal with that - new life). As you progress, discover who she is. Once you really know her (half way through the novel), go back and adjust any out of character actions and reactions. Carry on.
P.S.: I mention go back as soon as you know your character because, in a character driven novel, every thought, reaction and action can change the essence of the novel immensely, so I think it's essential not to risk out of character moments anywhere and, when you notice one, you should immediately fix it. The emotions and reactions of the character define and drive the plot. Get one wrong, and the plot starts going in the wrong direction.
I've never been entirely sure what the distinction between plot driven and character driven is supposed to mean. Story is the intersection of character and event. Character without events is psychology. Events without character is history.
None of the definitions of the concept I have read are really definitive and they don't really seen to agree with each other. The nearest distinction I can find that might fit is between a story that primarily give the pleasure of vicarious experience (being a policeman or a cowboy or an astronaut) and the pleasure of meeting a person.
A story whose principle aim is to give the vicarious pleasure of imagining oneself a policeman needs characters, because policemen meet characters: the partner, the captain, the villain, the mentor, the pretty girl who is not all she seems. We have met these characters before, and we will meet them again. And again. And again. These characters are archetypes and you can follow a template to generate instance of the archetype.
But in a story whose principle aim is to introduce you to a person, that person is not an instance of an archetype, generated to fill a role in a plot. They are a person. You don't invent people. You observe them. The drive to create a "character driven" story, if this is what the concept means, comes from an encounter with, and observation of, that person. This is not to say that such a character is a literal portrait of a single individual. Sometimes they are an amalgam of several people. But the point remains that observation, not invention, not a formula, are what drives their creation.