The local weirdo with the pet rat, the eccentric barista with the tattoo of an ironing board, the incompetent boss, the highfalutin poet.  Good characters are the stuff of life.

But do we love character-driven stories?  Are readers willing to follow a highfalutin poet on his misadventures around, say, literary Detroit?  How do writers create good, three-dimensional characters that have enough chutzpah to drive a story and keep readers turning pages?

ABS Fest 1Thanks for this show goes to Andy, a listener who sent us a message asking about this topic.  It’s a great question that led to an interesting discussion, and even got Tommy Z a little hot under the collar.


  • Characters have to yearn for something.  The strength of their desire is more important than knowing all of their background details.
  • It’s like a character’s potential energy–the right character in the right situation for a story to happen.  That’s Aristotle’s concept of energeia.
  • Tommy McScrooge wonders if readers like character-driven stories; if it’s truly character-driven, then characters will wander here and there, get lost, and daydream, and the story doesn’t have that rising and falling action like a true plot-driven story.
  • A character-driven story is a story where a character’s decisions drive the story, so the wanderings are very true-to-life and relatable.
  • But to follow a character-driven story is harder for a reader…
  • Is romance character-driven?  It’s relationship-driven, which is intimately tied to character and chemistry between other characters.
  • Tommy posits that most books out there that people think are character driven aren’t actually character driven.
  • Often with a plot-driven story, the subplots are character-driven (like Voldemort vs. Harry Potter as the main plot, but Harry’s friendships, school struggles, love interests, and the like are the character-driven sub-plot).
  • Stereotypes get a bad rap–it’s a word with negative connotation.  Rather than stereotype, think about archetypes.  Types can be useful for fiction writers, especially if you use a type but give it a twist or new wrinkle.  That’s how a character becomes round.
  • To be round, characters have to have a combination of two tensions.  They have to want something, AND it has to really, truly, deeply matter that they achieve it.  There are dire consequences if they’d don’t get it.
  • The tension of opposites is a great way to deepen character–internal conflicts help characters fight conflicts (the genteel serial killer Hannibal Lecter, for example, or the stressed-out cop Kurt Wallender).
  • Even great character-driven stories need to be balanced with elements of plot.  Characters have to respond to the natural world or society in order to move through the story.
  • The mark of a good character is one that has the capacity to change.  The character’s choice is whether to change or not.
  • Leo Tolstoy had a theory that there were only two stories: Someone goes on a journey or A stranger goes to town.  To have a good character-driven story, try having them go on a journey.
  • Maybe the difference between character-driven and plot-driven stories is how the trouble arises.  In plot-driven stories, the trouble comes upon the characters and they want things to return to normal.
  • The elusive quality of voice is key to good character.  Hard to pin down.
  • Another trick for writing character: let the reader do a lot of work and fill in the cracks however they’d like, to make them relatable individually.

Thanks again, Andy!  Great question, and we hope we did something to help us all think about character-driven stories a little better.

Anybody else got an idea for a show?  Let us know!

Thanks and happy writing, y’all.