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. When it comes to reading, it depends on what I’m in the mood for. Sometimes a fast-paced story that doesn’t allow you to really connect with the characters is what I want (typically a mystery or thriller, I find). When it comes to writing, I’m definitely more character-driven. I can’t say that I always think of the character first, but if the plot/idea comes first, the character is never too far behind. I’ve never had a plot with no characters, though the reverse has happened once or twice. Plot and characters are equally important to me, and I try to maintain a balance – keep it exciting, but really get to know the characters. I should add that I dislike “literature” that is all about retrospection.

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    1. Thanks for chiming in, Chibi. I’m much more narrow in my reading now. For the last few years, I’ve only read character-driven fiction. My only connection to plot-driven work is through an occasional movie.

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  2. Character drives plot. Plot drives character. My first thought is that I’m a character-driven writer, but upon further reflection, I couldn’t say which is most true for me, since my main character came to me as part of a plot. I guess I would like to think that my writing is story driven.

    Characters must have a story worth telling and a good story must have interesting characters. For me, plot is less than story. Plot is structure and pacing. Story is characters engaged in plot, defined by setting, illuminated by backstory, driven by conflict, and satisfied by resolution.

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    1. Susan, I agree that “Characters must have a story worth telling and a good story must have interesting characters.” And by your definition of terms, my question would be: which weighs more character or story? But maybe there is no question here.

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  3. Like Chibi, I think for me, it depends on the story. Having said that, thoughts, emotions, internal conflict and exploring personal histories are the areas of the story I excel at, I think, and enjoy writing the most. Having said THAT, ‘characterization’ – being able to tell which character is which without naming them etc. – and actually thinking up the character in the first place are failings of mine and where I need to improve.

    The plot is usually where I start, but the characters become more important to me… if I’ve done it ‘right’.

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    1. Thanks for weighing in, Aurora. The only time I ever start with plot/story is when I write “horror” and that’s been awhile. I expect though, in any genre writing it would be more likely you get the story idea first.

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  4. My first ‘real’ fiction piece started out as a dream of a girl in a situation. I guess then the situation is my starting point. I’ve spent a lot of time weaving a web of how she got there, what has shaped her and so on. As I write this piece, I see it in visual form, like a movie and even make notations that begin, “Scene showing…” very odd for me, wish I knew how to write a proper screenplay, but feel safer fleshing it out in a full story first. I’ll whittle it down for a film later. Then….. “Best Original Screenplay” here I come.
    : )

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    1. Jessica, my best stuff always starts with a dream. And I, too, see my story as a movie as I write, but I don’t think I want to write it as a screenplay … well, unless it gets optioned for one! 😀 May the muse be with you as you write this trilogy.

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  5. odd, in the past my name goes up there with the reply. This time, “anonymous”… well, that’s me up there, obviously technologically challenged. Still.

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