MICE is Nice: Character Stories

Character stories seem to be some of the easiest for me to write, at least until the characters flip me the Hawaiian Peace Sign and head off into parts unknown-to-author.

What is a character story? Oh boy, I’ve found three different definitions, and I don’t entirely agree with any of them. One, Orson Scot Card, says that character stories are driven by the character’s desire or need to change something about herself or her situation. An English textbook says it is any time an individual is the main plot driver, and an academic paper went so post-modern that I gave up trying to understand what the author meant once I got past “the main character is also the protagonist.”

To me, a character story is where the focus of the work is character centered and driven. The character might not want to change, or need to change, but is going to, and is going to be the reason for the story. I generally write character-driven stories, although you could argue that Of Merchant and Magic and Fountains of Mercy are milieu and event stories respectively. Why does [character] do that? Who is [character] anyway? How is [character] going to react to?

My difficulty with Card’s definition is that it seems to leave out coming-of-age stories. Those are often character-centered, but the character does not necessarily want anything to change, and may try to keep change from happening. Granted, often these are also stories aimed at younger readers, not books with adult protagonists, but consider Little House in the Big Woods. Does Laura want anything to change? Not really. She and her family drive the action and it is a story about her getting older, but I don’t recall Laura wanting anything major to change in her world. That doesn’t carry through to the other books, and it could well be that Card’s definition, if I were to take his class and ask him, does not apply to coming-of-age tales and books for younger readers.

On the other hand, you have characters like Simon Tregarth in the Witchworld books by Andre Norton. He begins Witchworld in need of an escape from enemies, and ends up risking a Gate that takes him into Witchworld and dumps him smack into a fight. And then it gets interesting! In fact, that’s a theme in the entire Witchworld series: outlanders who need to escape trouble, and in the process get dumped into Witchworld and become heroes, heroines, or really not-great-people (the Hounds of Alizon, among others).

So, how do you write a character story? First you get a character, preferably several. Start with a visit to your local Characters-R-Us emporium, and…

OK, maybe not that easy. Although, I did have one character’s historical counterpart appear in the back-seat of my pick-up and order me to write his story. Before you start looking up my IP address so you can call the Funny Farm to see if anyone is missing, I was parked in the library parking lot, congratulating myself for having finished the Colplatschki series. (Mistake number 1). My hand to Bog, Matthias Corvinus in all his grumpiness spoke to me from the back seat and told me to write his story. I’ve never had anything like that before or since, and I’d just as soon my characters didn’t make that into a habit. Apparently there are a few authors who have characters so strong that they break out of the imagination and leak into the real world. No thanks.

For most of us, perhaps we see someone who looks intriguing, and who is an easy platform to spin a what if on. What if that really competent-looking guy getting coffee is an off-duty spy? What if the quiet, shy gal in the ribbon and fabric section at the craft store works thread magic in the off hours? What if Peter the Great got dumped into modern Russia? (Peter the Great vs. Vladimir Putin.  Ivan IV vs. Putin. Pass the popcorn). What if that hot-shot high-school basketball player in your son’s team really wanted to be a jockey?

Or do like I do and steal from history. You can write historical fiction, or fold, spindle, and mutilate with fantasy like Guy Gavriel Kay did for some of his works. I know he’s a love/hate author, but I do owe him two things. First, he introduced me to Carlo Ginzburg’s and his students’ writings, starting with The Night Battles. Second, he showed me that you could take history and massage it into sci-fi or fantasy if you are careful and if you pick events and people most readers are not overwhelmingly familiar with. (The overwhelmingly familiar requires more skill to keep people reading, in my opinion.)

Another source of characters is reading a book or short story and thinking, “You know, the protagonist is a real cad, but that cousin, the one hiding behind the potted plant in the corner and wishing he could be anywhere else, he looks interesting.” This can lead to fanfic, or to carefully studying the secondary character, seeing what ticks and what isn’t really important, and then borrowing him for your own work.

What is it about the character that makes her go? What is critical to your character and what is trimmings and costume? Why does she do that when confronted by a teacher but this when she’s cornered by some guys in the hallway? What is her problem with germs, anyway? Why didn’t she accept that ballet scholarship? What did she see in that guy? Those are questions readers will want answered, and are ways to build up a living-on-the-page, breathing character. Some writers do a fast reveal, giving you everything up front and then putting the character into and out of trouble. Other writers need time to slowly reel you into all the depths their protagonist has to offer.

One thing Dwight Swain emphasizes in Techniques for Selling Authors is the in-trouble, out-of-trouble pattern. Unless you are writing some forms of modern literary novel, readers don’t want to know about the calm, uneventful day your character spent at work, his trip to the grocery store, and then the Italian art-film he saw that evening. Or about his agonizing over which brand of organic oatmeal to order from the co-op. Readers want action of some kind. Mr. Character is doing his mundane thing when a gorgeous brunette walks into the shop. She pulls a .45 on him, and demands to know where Amanda is. Mr. Character hasn’t heard of an Amanda since that one-hit-wonder’s song in the 1980s. And so on…

All stories, pretty much, have characters in them. But how a character acts, and how he or she (or it if you are writing aliens or something else) drives events in the story and responds to them, that’s what makes a character story a character story.


25 thoughts on “MICE is Nice: Character Stories

  1. “…an academic paper went so post-modern that I gave up trying to understand what the author meant once I got past “the main character is also the protagonist.””

    Sometimes, I wonder if the real story of postmodernism is that people studying literature looked towards scientific articles and the prestige of their rival academics in the sciences, found the scientific articles incomprehensible due to the technical language, and decided that incomprehensibility was what generated intellectual prestige.

    At other times, I think the incomprehensibility is just the natural next evolution of highly technical jargon that happens when your field has so few useful applications that you don’t have outsiders in industry, government, etc coming in to demand clearer explanations so they can try to apply research.

    1. Based on the sociology and anthropology papers I’ve been reading, I’m leaning toward incomprehension as a sign of being in the in-group. If you understand more than half of the paper or report, you obviously know the secret code words and so are part of The Group. YMMV.

  2. I do think that change is central to character stories, and I agree–the change is often something imposed from without rather than desired by the character. Not only Coming Of Age, but also Innocent Accused Thrillers and a lot of Horror deals with characters wishing they could go back to before the events of the story and somehow get their old lives back.

    Sometimes they even manage to do it. The stereotypical arc is Old Life–>Inciting Incident–>Conflict–> New (and presumably Better) Life, but sometimes the message is that you don’t appreciate what you have until you are in danger of losing it. The Wizard Of Oz being a famous example.

  3. “…characters so strong that they break out of the imagination and leak into the real world.”

    Yeah, Xen did that to me, when he was ticked over me killing Rael. Why don’t they escape when they’re having fun?

    1. No idea, although I had one of the main characters of the WIP inform me that she’s going clothing shopping at a thrift store and I’d better come along.

  4. “Apparently there are a few authors who have characters so strong that they break out of the imagination and leak into the real world.”

    That would be pretty cool, I like my characters. (It might be less cool if it meant I was finally losing my marbles, of course. Visual/auditory hallucinations are generally not a good sign.)

    They don’t do that though. They do refuse to follow any sort of plan or outline, however. I’ll be thinking “wouldn’t it be cool if this character got into it with this bad guy, and they had a big gunfight?” The character then figures out a perfectly logical and obvious way to avoid my plan, because they’re smarter than I am and they hate gunfights. I have to drop them deep in the sheep-dip to get them to do anything at all.

    Turns out it is quite hard to write about people who are smarter than you are. It takes a long time to solve the puzzles they toss off in mere moments.

    1. I had my characters trapped in a building once, with a bad guy outside with a weapon that covered the front parking lot. I had a big, daring boss battle all planned out, when one of the characters suggested just going out the back door and avoiding the bad guy. So I had to scrap my battle and figure out what the bad guy would do in that situation, and it turned out he really couldn’t do anything except leave and try to catch my heroes another time.

  5. I have a slightly different definition of “character-driven”, via Dave Farland & Brandon Sanderson – the character’s emotional arc or growth arc is the plot, or one of the main plots.

    In romance, the plot is the emotional arc of two people falling in love despite struggles, capped with a happily ever after (or happily for now). This is as opposed to a mystery, where the main plot is answering the puzzle or solving the murder, or a thriller where the plot is stopping the bad guys before the impending bad thing happens.

    Consider a book, wherein the ditzy furniture refinishing girl first meets the handsome cop over a dead body when she was dumpster-diving for pieces to restore. Is this a cozy mystery or a romance novel?

    Could be either – if it was a romance, the focus is on the girl and the guy falling in love despite obstacles like her being suspected of the murder or stalked by the killer. In fact, you could end the romance without ever having solved the murder, and the romance fans would be happy as long as the couple fell in love and conquered obstacles together.

    The mystery readers, meanwhile, want to know who killed the guy, how, and how the murderer is going to be caught. They’ll be quite forgiving if the girl and cop never get together, as long as the mystery is solved.

    This also maps more easily to YA, because if you look at character growth arc, that’s what coming of age is all about. Harry Potter starts as a weak kid, powerless, under the stairs, with people who hate him. He ends the first book having grown in power, gained friends and strength of character. Not completely there yet, but it’s a growth arc.

    *laughs* Writing terms, like British English vs. American English – it’s not just the different terms for the same thing that frustrate, it’s the same word for different definitions!

    1. Similar to Card’s. He observed that a plot incited by a murder could revolve around finding the killer (idea) or how the death of her husband created upheaval for the widow (character).

    2. I have a friend who writes paranormal romance based on fairytales. I’ve read some of her works but have to be very careful about how I review them—because I like to read urban fantasy based on fairytales, or Mercedes Lackey’s books based on fairytales, and they are hitting entirely different tropes and points than her work, so I don’t know how successful she’s doing it!

  6. Reblogged this on Lee Dunning and commented:
    I think my stuff is definitely character driven. I cannot claim to have had anyone speak to me from my backseat before,though. And I must also admit, that in general, I am too absorbed in whatever I’m doing to notice people around me enough to consider giving them stories. I’m more likely to get ideas/characters from stories. I once developed a character, and an entire book, around the Fleetwood Mac song, “Rhiannon”.

    1. I’d note that Character novel is a product category. Author’s psychological experiences writing the book possibly relate to process categories.

  7. “Apparently there are a few authors who have characters so strong that they break out of the imagination and leak into the real world.”

    Sherlock Holmes is no less real to me than, oh, Donald Trump.

    Both have the exact same interface with my reality – text, and a bit of video. And I’m about as likely to meet either of them in person.

    The old “shadows on the cave well” thing…

  8. You’re right, OSC’s definition has some gaps in it.
    I can’t think of a more character-driven story than “The African Queen”, but it takes a bit of stretching to fit it into his framework.

    Hrmmm. I can’t believe I never noticed how incomplete it was.

    1. I think he sort of bounced off the topic, because it’s not what OSC’s is really interested in, and because he knows a character novel when he sees one.

  9. At one time, I was thinking about writing straight historical fiction. Then a character spoke up out of my back brain and said “Like hell you are.” He gave me to understand that he would have some much more interesting stories for me, something to do with guarding the border between reality and myth.

  10. ‘Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.’ Homer, The Iliad

    Okay, strictly speaking the Iliad probably would be outside of a useful technical definition. It is not a novel, and probably is not a good template. But the Greek tragedy, where an otherwise great man is destroyed by his one flaw, is probably a hint in the right direction.

    Creative design is confusing because some people get specific things unknowing, which makes those difficult to teach. But a knowing process can be practiced until it becomes unknowing. Settings come easily to me, character and plot I work at.

    Some part of character is easier for me because I’ve devoted a lot of time to working out how those around me think about acting, and what makes them tick. I’ve done this because I am deeply frightened, and want to be safe. People in general are a deep subject. But individuals are much more predictable.

    Where I’ve been going wrong is that I need to answer what drives the character, what do they hunger, starve for that isn’t bread, /and/ relates to the plot/events of the story. A man might be a fanatic baseball card collector, but that doesn’t matter if the story is entirely divorced from that.

    Some stories can told in the same way with a different protagonist, or even a stock character. The more a story can’t be told the same with a different main character, the more character driven the story is. (Or substituting a separate character.)

    You can perhaps do a character driven story in isolation, a man versus the environment plot. Odds are, you are going to have character interaction. The nature of several characters might drive things. Design an interesting interaction between characters, design the characters so that they must do that, use one that actively participates in events making up a single whole as the viewpoint.

  11. On characters coming to life, one of my friends and I had an experience with that in high school: we were trying to write a parody musical about our school, and every time we named a character, it seemed like that character showed up in the system the next day: i.e. we decided that the main character would be Sara McCrae, and the next day there was an smccrae logged into the email system. This happened two or three days in a row before we finally abandoned the project for fear of bringing the villain to life…

  12. Anal retentive reader; the band Boston had more hits than Amanda. Then again, I’m the person who usually knows the least about music in any group I’m in.

    1. Yes, they did, but I was riffing at the last minute, because I realized that the article had no conclusion, it just sort of stopped. 🙂

  13. Having just days ago spotted a mouse in the house, and having had to deploy anti-mouse devices, I am not sure I can agree that “mice is nice.” Mice are evil and should be wiped from the Earth, like the English did to the dragons in the Middle Ages. 😛

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: