Critique, Feedback, Fiction, Writing

Story or character, which weighs more?

In previous posts, I’ve told you about the beta-readers who praised my work, but now I’m going to come clean. One writer, though complimentary on my writing skills, did not think my story was successful. I respected his opinion, and certainly appreciated the time he spent reading my manuscript and writing his critique, but I was honestly perplexed how he failed to “get” so many elements of my story.

I was disappointed, to be sure, but I didn’t panic because I had solid responses to his objections. I didn’t start tearing my book apart because I knew every element he questioned was integral to the story. Did my book need work? Obviously, so—I subsequently revised the version he read, adding 16,000 words, though only a small part of those words addressed his issues. Yet his critique nagged me.

Recently, I listened to him discuss the next issue he would address in his own work—a supernatural tale. His story was finished, fully fleshed out, and now, he said, he would go back and add more characterization. I sat there thinking how wrong that sounded. Finally, the reason why thunked me on the head. His method sounded wrong to me because it’s the opposite of mine.

He has a great story he wants to tell … and, by the way, there are people in the story. I want to tell you about some people … and, by the way, they have a story.

That is a definition of action-driven vs. character-driven fiction. I’m not saying one is better than the other, that plot-driven fiction can’t have good characterization, or story doesn’t matter in character-driven fiction. But I think writers take different approaches to each.

I start with just a story premise—a situation, really—and then I explore the characters in that situation: who they are, what they want, why they don’t have it. I want to see where they live, what they do for work and pleasure, who populates their lives. I have to know them inside and out. Only then can I write their story.

Tell me, what kind of fiction do you write, and which takes precedence, story or character?

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27 thoughts on “Story or character, which weighs more?”

  1. I need both. Strong characterization will make me care about the story. If the characters aren’t sympathetic and if I can’t figure out why I’m supposed to want to know what happens to them, then I won’t read on.

    That said, a solid, intriguing plot is crucial, too. Show me a story that’s worth telling through both character and plot. The books I remember are those that have both.

    Intriguing characters doing intriguing things in an intriguing world. Those are the books I recommend to people and read more than once. If any element is missing, the book may still be enjoyable, but I won’t read the last page and breathe, “Wow.”


    1. Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. I agree that a great book has all the elements in balance, but I don’t think those elements have to be equal. I think the ratio depends on the category of fiction. I do love a book that makes me say, “Wow.”


  2. I start with characters in my writing, but I’m finding if I don’t get some action in there pretty fast, it’s boooorrrriinngg and slow-going. You do a great job, Linda, of describing the distinctions between plot- and character-driven.

    I’m not a TV person and I’ve never watched LOST, but I think I’ll go thru your post and comments on it so I can catch up with what the rest of the world knows about!


    1. Well, of course, a book would be boring with NO action, I mean, you can’t have a person just lying in bed thinking through the whole thing. But action for one person may not be action at all for another, so you have to know your intended reader. I’m a pretty laid back person and I would read a book where the main character lies in bed thinking … as long as his thoughts were interesting enough. 😉

      I don’t consider myself a TV person either. I only watch a few series, and rarely do they air during the same season. I was just instantly hooked on Lost. I like trying to solve mysteries and there were a lot of interesting characters. You should give the pilot episode a try.


  3. I’m posting a link to this conversation on Helen Smith’s blog (a British writer I met via SheWrites, by the way.) She had a similar discussion on her Smith’s Bleakly post. Her conclusion: instead of starting with character or story, she thinks she’ll start with a positive review of the book or play that she has yet to write and work backward!


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