How I Wrote a Character-Driven Story

I’m a plot-driven storyteller. As a result, it took me a long time to really understand how to write a character-driven story–not just to deepen characterization after the plot is written, but to really write a story that tells about a character’s particular life experiences.

This is supposed to be the domain of realist literary fiction, I thought. Plenty of genre fiction is character-driven, of course. The best often is. But genre fiction tends in general to slant towards plot and storytelling for the joy of storytelling. As such, I felt more at home writing those kinds of stories. I’d never consciously tried to write what Orson Scott Card might call a Character story before, but I had written Event stories.

Until, that is, I took a fiction writing workshop at the Thomas More Institute with Pauline Beauchamp and Karen Nesbitt (which is being offered again in Winter 2020). The 12-week workshop gave my classmates and myself plenty of time to do exercises that allowed us to slowly discover our protagonists. And once I had this chance to really build a character from the ground up, it seemed the easiest thing in the world to write a story about him.

The result? My story “The Goddess in Him” will be appearing with NewMyths.com in September 2020 and I can’t wait to share it with you all.

Writing a character-driven story was simple in the end. Because of the way my mind works, it had just never clicked that this was one way you could write the kind of story editors always want: character-driven stories.

I had to begin not with a fully outlined plot, but with a fully-fleshed person.


I go more into depth about my experience with writing character-driven fiction in my latest article in The Writing Cooperative, “How I Learned to Write Character-Driven Stories.”


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How to Write a Fully-Rounded Adventure Story Protagonist

Desert journey

Photo by Jeff Jewiss on Unsplash

Adventure fiction — defined broadly as any kind of fiction that focuses on the mounting physical challenges characters must face, usually in dangerous, exotic locales — allows the writer little room for characterization. How then is it possible to depict credible characters, especially when so much time is spent on riverboat chases and other stunts?

Given the breakneck pace of the adventure genre, depicting rounded characters can be a challenge. For an adventure hero or heroine to be fully credible, they must be more than competent. They must also be a three-dimensional, believable person.

This is complicated by how adventure fiction’s interest lies in action and suspense rather than characterization. In How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card remarks on how the Indiana Jones movies “spend very little effort on characterization beyond what is necessary to keep the story moving.” It is the same way with the archaeological thrillers of Andy McDermott, James Rollins, and Matthew Reilly, as well as in other adventure genres. The cutthroat pace of adventure makes nuanced characterization more difficult to achieve than in other types of fiction. In fact, some writers barely even seem to try.

Breaks devoted to characterization may spoil an adventure story’s forward momentum. Yet, if adventure fiction writers want to find a way to explore their protagonist’s hidden depths, either the pace must slow in certain places, or characterization must be presented on the fly. This is no mean feat.

Samuel R. Delany, author of the speculative fiction novels Dhalgren and the Return to Nevèrÿon series, addressed this issue back in 1969. “Often,” he writes in About Writing, “in the rush to keep the action going, writers who specialize in what are seen as adventure stories forget to confront their characters (especially the women) with enough objects/emotions/situations or give their characters space enough to react in a way both individual and within the limits of psychological veracity.”

Indeed, credible female characters were — and perhaps still are — even rarer in the genre than credible male characters. Although I plan to examine some of the reasons why this might be, for now, I will only point out that characters both male and female tend to lose their individuality in adventure stories.

One snowboarder buried in an avalanche will try to dig out of the snowdrift in much the same way as another. A character needs to be involved in a wider variety of situations to really emerge as an individual.

True, heroes like MacGyver might improvise impromptu gadgets, or approach problems in a unique way, but all the same: in this genre, many opportunities for individualization often get lost in the shuffle.

One solution to individualize your adventure story protagonist would be to develop a wider variety of situations to test her. But of what nature should these situations be?

Delany has the answer. There are “three types of actions,” he writes, “the purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous” (my bolding). A credible character who performs several instances of each type of action, he states, “will probably seem more real.”

Why is this so? To answer this question, I’d like to draw attention to Delany’s observation that female characters in adventure fiction often only exhibit one type of action. Villainesses are usually all purpose, while heroines remain either exclusively habitual or gratuitous. Sexist stereotypes about cunning stepmothers, homely housewives, and male-fantasy fulfilling lovers spring to mind.

What this goes to show, aside from the sexism of many male authors, is that when a character only performs one type of action, it limits their agency to something less than what is believably human. Often, you end up with a stereotype of one sort or another, or perhaps an unoffensive character who serves as nothing more than a function in a story. If, however, a character performs the full range of purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous actions, then she becomes an individual rather than a type.

True, a secondary character with a walk-on role is still legitimate. They may be necessary for fulfilling a function. However, if the character is meant to generate sustained reader sympathy and interest — if the reader is meant to believe in the character as a fully individual human being — then the character must be able to perform purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous actions.

The adventure genre itself has no problems with purposeful or gratuitous actions. Gratuitous adventures such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road are embarked upon for a simple reason: to see what’s out there. Purposeful adventures are often missions, such as the quest to destroy the Ring in The Lord of the Rings. Even Robinson Crusoe acts with the stout purpose of a homo economicus as he transforms his island into a profitable colony.

Mixing purposeful and gratuitous actions can nuance an adventure story, if the story leans too heavily towards one type of action. However, I am hard-pressed to think of any adventure that is fundamentally based upon a habitual action.

Habitual actions seem inimical towards adventure. After all, readers pick up adventure novels to escape from their daily grind, and the genre itself is synonymous with the idea of risk — anything that interrupts the regular, habitual routine. There isn’t much that is habitual in explosions and hungry alligators, after all. At least not for most people.

And yet, habits define our daily lives and are a crucial part of who we are as human beings. This places characters in adventure fiction risk at seeming incomplete as people and as individuals. But this again raises the question: How can you find time in your fast-paced adventure story to demonstrate your character’s daily habits?

Character “quirks,” like smoking cigars or taking swigs from a hip flask, may be one unobtrusive solution. But truly meaningful habitual actions can be difficult to illustrate without breaking the story’s momentum.

To answer this question, it is worth realizing that plenty of habitual actions happen on adventures. On the road, characters must set up their tents, cook their food, and maintain their gear. Many adventure writers skip these boring, everyday travel details in order to “get to the action.” However, they might be missing out on important opportunities for characterization.

For example, Ursula K. Le Guin in The Left Hand of Darkness devotes considerable space to the mundane details of Renly Ai and Estraven’s trans-glacial sledge trek. She dwells upon their dwindling food supply, their sleeping habits, the way they set up their tent, and so forth. Information as simple as how they lay their sleeping bags down for the night adds compelling insights into their relationship.

By having them perform such habitual actions, Le Guin adds depth to their characterization, individualizing them and rendering them far more credible as people.

Adding details of your character’s habits during such moments may be the key to fleshing out their individuality. But what other opportunities for demonstrating your character’s habits are there in adventure fiction?

Adventure often involves characters attempting to secure the basic needs for survival. Think about food, sleep, money, and society. Chances are that your character has a unique way of acquiring their basic needs.

Indeed, Delany provides a list of questions based on these same points that you can ask yourself when writing characters. These questions are designed to explore what your characters “should be exposed to and allowed to have individual reactions to, to make them appear particularly vivid”:

“Food: How does the character behave when eating with a group? If possible, how does she or he react when supplying food for others?

Sleep: What particularizes his/her going to sleep, his/her waking up?

Money: How does he or she get his/her shelter, food, and how does she or he feel about how she or he gets it?[and] 

Society: How does he or she react to somebody who makes substantially more money than he or she does, and how is this different from the way he or she acts to an economic peer (and believe me, it is different, however admirable)?”

While by no means an exhaustive list of possible questions, Delany’s questions can be a prompt for exploring the unique ways your adventure story protagonist engages with the fundamental elements of life: food, sleep, money, and society.

In conclusion, all three types of action that Delany describes— the purposeful, the habitual, and the gratuitous — can be used to flesh out your characters in adventure fiction, even if habitual actions are under-used in the genre. You can thus individualize and nuance your adventure story protagonist without sacrificing suspense and momentum.

Thinking about how your hero or heroine would react towards certain situations that all human beings have experienced before can help you understand what makes your adventure protagonist a distinct, particularized individual.

Course Offered: Through the Leaf-Mould: Speculative Fiction Writing

specfic

Are you an aspiring fantasy and science fiction writer? If so, I have good news!

I am teaching a speculative fiction writing workshop at the Thomas More Institute (3405 Atwater Avenue, Montreal) called “Through the Leaf-Mould: Speculative Fiction Writing.”

You will read selections from speculative fiction authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Charles de Lint, and China Miéville, while working on your own short story to be workshopped in class.

The 12-week course begins January 7th. Register for the course through the Thomas More Institute website. Questions may be directed to me at matthew.rettino@gmail.com.

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My Critters List of the 5 Most Common Weaknesses in Fiction

“The Pilgrim’s Yoke”

Professional Proofreading and Editing

My Critters List of the 5 Most Common Weaknesses in Fiction

Ever since I became serious as a freelance editor/proofreader and a participant on Critters.org, the oldest online writer’s critique group, I have encountered the same weakness in fiction over and over again. Partly, I think this is because people send early drafts to critiques and forego revision until they receive their first round of feedback.

In my opinion, writers could benefit from self-revision before submitting to critique groups because many weaknesses that make a story unreadable can be fixed by the writers themselves. Beta readers and critique groups are useful resources, but writers can improve their craft more reliably through deep practice.

As a tool to help writers improve their own work, I have provided the following list of common weaknesses in fiction.

1. Too little exposition, especially at the beginning.

Young or inexperienced writers are often advised to avoid exposition at all costs. It’s an info dump, boring, and uninteresting to read. But given the volume of fiction I have read where I did not feel grounded in the story, I am no longer convinced that this advice is unimpeachable.

Writers are told by creative writing teachers to begin in media res, but often, they begin their stories before they establish the res. In other words, they begin in ‘the middle of things‘ without establishing what those ‘things’ are, or where they are, or when they are. The characters are already running around doing things, but there is a certain level of knowledge the reader is presumed to have before they come to the text.

Unfortunately, there is no way for readers to access this information if it is not on the page! This is a problem especially frequent with speculative fiction openings, where a common reality between the reader and the fictional world is not necessarily assumed.

“Once upon a time, there was a young princess who loved to play with her toy ball.”  This establishes a time, a character, and a setting. It is a perfect window into the “before” state prior to the main action. Every word is exposition: “telling” instead of “showing.” Yet, the words have a solidity and sense of narrative confidence that grounds the reader.

Writers often forget to use the narrator’s voice to convey important details of the story. This likely has to do with how most writers are raised on the visual formats of TV and movies instead of the nineteenth-century novels of yore. Since writers think they can see their characters in the movie of their mind’s eye, they think the reader will have no problem seeing that movie. But in these cases, this movie does not exist on the page.

Simply showing events does not ground the reader automatically. A certain  amount of telling is often necessary. Keep exposition minimal in the middle of your story and at the end, but do not forget that exposition at the beginning may be necessary.

In modern literature, stream-of-consciousness and multiple viewpoints give a greater sense of the fragmentation of experience. But even if the narrator’s  perspective no longer carries the authority it enjoyed in the nineteenth century, it must still anchor itself in those very limits. From that base, that creative center, the story expands outwards, growing steadily more complex, like coral.

N.B.: I would highly recommend writers, especially speculative fiction writers, to consult How to Improve Your Speculative Fiction Openings by Robert Qualkinbrush, which I have read. It goes into more detail about this issue.

2. Opening at the wrong time.

On occasion, a story might begin too early or late in the action.  Introducing your story in media res can sometimes feel like filling a reader in about what happened when they were asleep during the first half of a movie. If you find that this is true for you, you might have begun the story too late.

On the other hand, when you write a character traveling or walking towards a fateful destination, chances are you have begun the story too early. This is called “walking to the story” and is a crutch writers fall back on. This is fine to do in rough drafts as a way to connect with your characters. But in subsequent drafts, it is usually a good idea to cut these moments out.

Sometimes the story begins with the right scene, but the wrong thing is being described. For example, there might be a few sentences of purposeless description done in the interest of painting a picture. Perhaps the colour of the sky is described or the colour of the protagonist’s hair. Often, this information is uninteresting to the reader who does not yet have a reason to care what the world looks like. They want to know what’s happening or at least have some unusual, privileged insight into a character presented to them.

Sometimes a story begins at the wrong moment simply because the reader tries to express an emotional reaction that has been given no context. In About Writing, Samuel Delaney provides a model for the three units of narrative that build on one another like blocks. Setting/location must be established firstly, followed by situation and conflict. As a result of this conflict, the reader lastly experiences affect, or emotional reaction (payoff). This model can be applied on any fractal level of narrative structure: paragraphs, beats, scenes, acts.

In cases where an emotional reaction begins a story but falls flat, the writer may have used the three units of narrative in reverse, beginning with affect without describing setting or situation. Unless the emotion is primal and/or the context swiftly provided, the reader may feel disconnected from the events.

Sometimes the story begins at the wrong chronological moment. Other times, it begins with the wrong details being described. Sometimes the fix is as simple as rearranging the order of a few sentences in a paragraph; other times, the story’s initial event must itself be rethought. Ideally, a story begins at a moment of dramatic interest where the relevant details can be shown and/or told in exposition that appears relevant to the action.

3. Unclear, unfelt stakes.

The next biggest weakness is a lack of clear, emotional stakes. By stakes I mean the question, “Why is this character performing this action?” Stakes have to do with risk and all the things the character has to lose or gain. The clearer the stakes, the more reasons to read on to see whether the protagonist gains or loses what they most value and love.

Unclear stakes often occur because readers have forgotten to make them explicit.  Too much subtlety can sometimes result in a vagueness with regard to a character’s goal. But there is nothing wrong with a line that puts all the cards on the table for everyone to see: “Velma couldn’t let Clarice beat her at Bingo, or she’d never be able to look her knitting circle in the eye again.” The circumstances may appear trivial to a reader, but given the above example, no one can deny that Velma needs to win the Bingo tournament at Shady Maple Retirement Home to earn the regard of her peers.

Exposition can go a long way to making stakes clear, especially at the beginning of a story. Later in the story, stakes can be shown instead of told. For example, there might be a scene where Velma loses the Bingo game and the knitting group has a meeting without inviting her. Now the stakes are bigger: will she confront her knitting group and stand up for herself or wallow in self-pity about her loss? This is an escalation.

These stakes must not only be clear, but carry an emotional impact. The stakes of a story might be world-ending–a nuclear war scenario, for instance–but if the protagonist remains unaffected, the reader does too. Thus, the urgency of a stake has nothing to do with the volume of people affected but by the specificity of the emotions associated with it.

Velma’s need to earn the respect in her knitting circle might engage readers, while scavengers surviving in a post-nuclear Toronto might elicit no sympathy whatsoever. If the scavengers’ stakes have no emotional context, they will simply not matter to the reader.

Think of all the things George Bailey loses in It’s A Wonderful Life when he sees what Bedford Falls looks like in a world where he has never been born. He loses the Building & Loan, his family, and the optimism of the town itself, which has nowhere to turn to escape Mr. Potter’s exploitation. George stands to lose everything he cares about and the audience feels it.

The more particularized the stakes, the better. If the fate of the world is literally at stake in your story, a bland emotional reaction on your protagonist’s part, even if noble (“We have to save it!”), will not give an especially compelling reason to be interested in the character per se. If, however, the scavenger’s grandmother is alone at Shady Maple Retirement Home on Bingo Night and unaware of the danger of the incoming nuclear apocalypse, the stakes for the scavenger are more particularized–that is, specific for him. We might also feel a little sorry that grandma was never able to resolve the drama with her knitting circle.

Think of the reader’s attention as a tent on a windy mountaintop. You need many specific and poignant stakes to pin that tent down, keep your reader’s attention tethered to your story, and hold it there.

4. A lack of frontwork to prepare readers for revelations.

A revelation in your story that does not ‘land’ often confuses the reader instead of delivering the emotional or intellectual impact you desire. Fixing revelations involves hard work. In order to reveal information in your story in an impactful way, you have to do some frontwork.

For instance, in one story I read, a character was working on a mystery surrounding a crime, but before they could establish a baseline of assumptions about the case, the writer threw a curve ball: a surprise revelation revealed that the crime the character was investigating was itself a deception. The suspects, who were only vaguely described, were actually a cover-up for other criminals, who were even more vaguely described.

This was ineffective because I did not have a baseline of assumptions about the criminals already. This came from a lack of exposition. But the main issue was that the clues to the deception were not planted in advance. I was not engaging with this revelation on an intellectual level. I was just seeing it happen. One set of criminals were as good as the other.

At Odyssey, I learned the distinction between ‘surprise’ and ‘answer’ revelations. The distinction between these types of revelations lies in how they each generate a different kind of expectation in the reader. An answer revelation comes as the answer to a specific, limited question posed by the story. An example would be the classic whodunit. A surprise revelation comes out of the blue, but still creates the anticipation in the reader that the information revealed will cast a new light on what came before. For example, the characters might reinterpret specific clues, correcting an illusion or a misdirection.

To these two types of revelation, I would like to add the type of ironic revelation. In an ironic revelation, the reader or audience is aware of the content of the revelation, but specific characters in the story may not be. This is particularly common in comedy (Ex: “Nina’s been lying to you about being a Hollywood starlet ever since you first met.”).

Surprise revelations work because clues interpreted one way can become reinterpreted in another. But if these clues are unclearly indicated, or even absent, the revelation can fall flat or confuse the reader.

In another story I read, a character’s father was a supernatural being, but clues that could have served as subtle hints of this were skimmed over. This is where illusion or misdirection can help. For instance, if the father was trying to hide that he was a vampire, perhaps the son could be suspicious that he is a cocaine addict and find evidence to reinforce this idea–at least until the surprise revelation tells him otherwise.

The surprise revelation casts the specific clues placed earlier in the story in a new light. But it is fundamentally important to ensure those clues are doing the right work. Choose a specific, convincing way for the viewpoint character to misinterpret the clues. This misdirects the reader. Then, after the surprise revelation, those same clues are reinterpreted.

5. Stock or manipulated gestures.

This is probably one of the hardest issues to fix, but it is certainly one of the most common to find in fiction, especially in scenes with a lot of dialogue. “She smiled”, “he walked”, “he nodded”, “she raised her eyebrow”: If any of these short phrases sound familiar, you probably know that these expressions are overused. These body language beats are clichés and so often repeated, especially in early drafts, that it reduces writing to a boring sameness and repetitiousness.

It’s not that these gestures are an absolute evil. Plenty of published works throw in the odd eyebrow raise. It’s just that these expressions are rarely ideal. They often misrepresent the particularity of your characters’ personality and stifle their fullest expression. Having a startlingly unique character raise an eyebrow, nod, and walk around is almost like placing such a character in a straitjacket. Instead, they should express themselves using telling gestures authentic to themselves, their own setting, and their own situation.

Write stock gestures to get past the first draft. But after you have gained a better vision of your character and their personality, specify. Particularize. Instead of saying they smiled at someone, you can say they smiled at someone while looking the other way across the room. This implies inner conflict, that their attention lies elsewhere. Gestures demonstrating inner conflict can go a long way towards representing a character’s particularity.

Gestures can also seem like they are manipulated by the author. For example, a character who is usually depressed and/or self-critical would likely not smile to express happiness. Depending on their personality, they might not even smile to express sarcasm. Every character comes with an emotional range. You must ask yourself how this character would express happiness, or how that character might react to jealousy, and so on.

To recap, my advice comes down to two major themes: making sure the reader has all the information they need to enjoy the story and ensuring that characters are depicted in their particularity to generate deeper interest in those characters.

Your first draft will always be rough, but once you train yourself to spot these weaknesses in your own writing, you will be that much closer to developing better second drafts and becoming a more self-reliant writer.

Announcing the October Archaeology of Weird Fiction Project

At the World Fantasy Convention in 2015, I was introduced to the world of weird fiction.

My roommate for the weekend, Usman T. Malik, introduced me to the  Year’s Best Weird Fiction anthology series (Undertow Publications), where a short story of his, “Resurrection Points,” had been published recently. His enthusiasm for his genre of choice, the weird tale, was contagious.

Soon I had discovered ChiZine Press’s lineup of dark fiction novels and short story collections and I had picked up Jeffrey Ford’s collection A Natural History of Hell. These stories, particularly those in the Ford collection, astounded me with their imaginative situations, their mythologies, and their bold use of language. Although I had not been exposed much to H.P. Lovecraft, I began to read his classic weird tales as well. I had caught the bug.

Before I knew it, weird tales had infected my brain. It was just as China Miéville described in his “Afterweird” to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s seminal anthology, The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories: weird texts “will eat the books you read from today on … That is how the weird recruits. … These stories are worms” (1116).

These textual tapeworms led me to write an essay on the Weird and Usman T. Malik’s fiction in Harf: A Journal of South Asian Studies, an academic journal based at McGill University. The ways this genre twists language and representation became an object of fascination for me.

It was not long before I discovered the vast range of texts Ann and Jeff VanderMeer had compiled together in their anthology. Texts from the early twentieth century to the twenty-first are gathered here within the same sprawling volume, encompassing authors as diverse as Franz Kafka, Ray Bradbury, Rabindranath Tagore, James Triptree, Jr., George R.R. Martin, Julio Cortázar, Kelly Link, and Jamaica Kincaid. The anthology also includes contemporary authors of the New Weird, such as China Miéville and Thomas Ligotti. In all, 110 texts appear in this collection, each originally published between 1909 and 2010.

The Weird creates the predecessors of the New Weird movement, an act of canonization. However, Miéville emphasizes that this compendium “does not, nor could it, enshrine one set of texts. Without motion–of crawling and wringing time–there is no Weird. All canons are tombs, yes, but this collection is a post-elegy, wearing / an eaten shroud / –a long-dead rag for the dead” (1116). Weird fiction frustrates our categories and subverts our reassurances of permanency and order.

This project is an excavation of that canonical tomb. It is an archaeology of the weird.

My goal will be to post weekly reflections on the earliest stories in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s compendium throughout the month of October. I hope to learn something about how the genre developed the way it did. I also hope to figure how the weird produces some of the stylistic effects it is famous for making. And lastly, like a pulp archaeologist in the adventure serials, I may find my cold, rational logic challenged by the sudden manifestation of the realities human beings were never meant to understand…

It promises to be fun.

My first post will be on an excerpt of Alfred Kubin’s The Other Side (1908), the first story included in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology. The posts will appear weekly on Saturday mornings.