Thursday, December 18, 2014

Is "Character-Driven" Being Used As An Excuse For Bad Writing?

Before we get this week's entry started I'd like to let all my readers know that I'm having a holiday giveaway! If you want to get a rare, out-of-print title from yours truly all you have to do is email and ask. Full details of the giveaway can be found right here on Improved Initiative.

Now, onto this week's entry!

I love meeting fellow authors. Whether it's at a convention or a coffee shop, a reading or a talk it's always a pleasure to meet someone else who feels strongly about the same passion. Over time I've learned to understand and admire writers of other genres and styles. That said, red lights and alarm bells still go off whenever someone opens a conversation with, "I write character-driven stories."

Say that again, I'm not sure I heard you right the first time.

What's Wrong With Character-Driven Stories?

Nothing, and everything. You see the problem comes when you examine what the term actually means, and what a lot of writers think the term means.

What the term character-driven actually means is that the character is driving the story. Whether it's a meth-addled rock star riding the roads on an iron horse to try and find himself again or a young girl questioning the teachings of the religious cult that's raised her for her entire life, you have a setup that only exists because the character is changing somehow. The character is creating a story, rather than being acted on by outside forces. That is fine and dandy, a-ok and no issues here.

The problem is this is not often the definition that people are using. To hear some writers tell it a character-driven story is a story that has been scrubbed completely clean of all that nasty plot. It's a story about a person, and that person's internal struggles and revelations. About life, the soul, and the universe... things that would only be cheapened by expecting the character to take any sort of action or achieve any kind of goal.

You keep using this word. It does not mean what you think it means.

Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts

The problem with many authors who actively use the term character-driven is that they think it's one or the other. Either you sit and plot out everything that happens and you jerk the character along your plot rails or you focus on what that character is thinking, feeling, and about his or her development. You can't do both!

In fact it's just the opposite. You have to do both in order to have a complete story.

You might decide to sit down and write a story about a homicide detective who has to delve into the life of a victim that reminds him of his daughter. On the one hand the book might have the internal journey the detective takes, showing us how his views of the world are shaped and how the nature of his calling have warped his soul out of true. That's compelling stuff... but he's still got to pursue the killer. He has to view crime scene photos, interview witnesses, run down clues, make deductions, and do things in order for the book to continue on. He doesn't have to catch the killer, but if all he does is sit around his desk and navel-gaze for a week then he's going to lose his shield in pretty short order.

It's perfectly fine to have a story that focuses on a strong, engaging character. In fact it's a great idea if you want us to see how this character grows and changes, developing in ways that take us on a journey. On the other hand people have to actually do things, otherwise the only ride we're going on is following their daily commute to work, watching them write poetry, or tagging along on an endless series of social events. While not every novel has to be about black ops agents averting nuclear war, or death-defying quests to toss magic rings into volcanoes before an ultimate evil destroys the known social order and installs absolute tyranny, it helps if all of the character development is actually because of something. It could be training to run a local marathon, getting a better job, or working through a sticky marriage full of secrets, but no character is an island. They will do things, and things will be done unto them. It's how they react that matters, and how they change that makes them drive the plot.

You might have a supercharged engine, but it won't go anywhere suspended in midair. It needs to be in a car, and only then will the two halves result in a ride someone will actually want to take.

Thanks again for dropping in on The Literary Mercenary! If you have comments about the blog feel free to leave them below or send them directly to me via the form on this page. If you'd like to support me in my endeavors then stop by my Patreon page and become a patron today! Lastly if you want to make sure you get all of my updates either submit your email address using the form on the right, or follow me on Facebook and Tumblr!

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