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.