Start with character

From Jane Friedman’s blog: Starting Your Novel With Character: 3 Strengths and 3 Challenges, by  Susan DeFreitas 

Okay, I feel like I start with the characters — well, with the characters and the scene and situation — certainly not with the plot, anyway. So I’ll bite. Tell me all about the pluses and minuses of starting with the character.

In my work as a book coach, I’ve found that writers of fiction generally fall into three camps: those who start with character, those who start with plot or story concept, and those who start with theme...

Oh, the theme! I hadn’t thought of that as an option. That’s an interesting idea — starting with the theme. I feel like most of the time I don’t know what the theme is until a reviewer says, “Neumeier’s strong theme of whatever,” and then I’m like, Oh, right, that was definitely the theme.

I’m exaggerating, but not that much. I’d be interested in DeFreitas’ ideas about how it works to start with the theme, but for now, back to starting with the character(s):

Strength: Characters make us care. A twisty plot, compelling themes, and fascinating setting are all great assets for a novel, but character is what makes us really care about the story.

I agree completely! At least for me. I’m a character reader most of the time. If I don’t immediately engage emotionally with the protagonist, I’m probably going to DNF the book. The engagement has to be very nearly immediate these days, too, as I will seldom read more than ten pages or so before deciding not to finish a book. I realize this is not entirely fair and I’m probably missing some books I would have liked a lot if I’d only stuck with them for a few chapters. But. The TBR pile, so enormous; time, so limited … have I mentioned that I’m trying to whittle down my paper TBR pile this summer? I’ve DNFed and discarded, hmm, must be about a dozen books this month. I don’t believe I’ve finished any.

Writers who start with character don’t struggle to create characters who seem alive on the page, whose struggles touch upon universal themes, and who exhibit the sort of complexity that makes us as readers really feel what it is to be human. 

Those of us who said, with regard to a previous post, “I don’t know how I create characters, I just do it,” are probably this kind of writer.

Strength: There’s a solid market for character-driven fiction. The vast majority of novels that fall into the genres known as contemporary fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction are character-driven… Writers who start with character generally don’t struggle to determine if there’s a market for the sort of thing they do, because that market is broad and well defined.

Well, that’s nice, but better still, a whole lot of fantasy and some SF is also character driven. Good thing too, as I read very little in any of the genres mentioned above.

Seeing a statement like this makes me feel at once that the author of this post thinks of SFF as inherently plot driven. I may not be quite fair in assuming that. But the idea that character-driven fiction is well defined strongly suggests that assumption. The category of “character-driven fiction” is not either “well defined.” Lots of SFF novels are character driven while some are not. Some murder mysteries are character driven while lots are not. Lots of romances are character driven. Lots of historicals too.

However, I grant, there is still a solid market for character-driven SFF, because a whole bunch of readers seek out this kind of SFF and do not want plot-driven SFF. This is one of the features that makes fantasy more popular than science fiction, probably, but that is probably a topic for a different post.

Okay, third strength:

Strength: There’s no question whose story it is. Other types of writers may spend some time in the planning stages of a novel wrestling with the question of who their protagonist should be. But for writers who start with character, this generally isn’t an issue (unless there are so many compelling characters in their head that it’s just hard to choose among them).

Oh, I at once thought of Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy. My biggest problem with that trilogy was that all the characters could have been THE central protagonist for a novel. It was almost painful to switch from one to another. I could not possibly pick out the pov protagonist I liked the best from this wide field.

Now for the problems inherent with starting with the character(s):

Challenge: Too many POVs. … generally speaking, these other POVs are compelling and well written. But that doesn’t mean that including them serves the story; sometimes these other POVs are no more than game trails that lead the story off on tangents without contributing anything in particular to the main story line, and, as such, should be avoided.

I think that’s funny because it instantly points to the problem I had with Bear’s trilogy. Except in her case all those POVs supported her story, because she’s a fine writer and wouldn’t just accidentally scatter her attention through side tangents. But this way of defining a challenge for a character-centered author is making me think of … hmm, I think it was Marie Brennan who wrote a long review of The Wheel of Time and counted up the pov characters. There were something like 140 pov characters in that series — way, way too may inserted for no special reason. (Most of that review has disappeared into the aether, as far as I know, but part of it is here.)

I personally do try to keep down the number of pov characters. But they do tend to multiply. I think of it as something of a triumph when I write a whole novel with exactly one pov character. That’s only happened in books I wrote later, so I guess it was a challenge for me, since I never used to do it. Still, other than the Black Dog series, I’m pretty sure I never got above four important main pov characters. Or so.


Challenge: Lack of arc. Sometimes writers have so much love and sympathy for their protagonists that they have a hard time imagining a real flaw for that character, or some real issue in the way that person sees the world.

Is this a somewhat more polite way of declaring that character-centered authors may be more prone to creating Mary Sue characters?

Actually, I sort of think this is true. I also think the easiest way around it is to start with a young protagonist and have the character grow up. But you can also do it by just not having the protagonist be right about everything and acknowledging that.

One of the protagonists I’m most personally fond of is Oressa, and one reason I particularly like her is that the relationship between Oressa and Gulien is so simple, but the relationship each of them has with their father is so complex and different. In other words, including the protagonist in a complicated web of relationships is perhaps one way in which to give the protagonist some pressure to change.

Challenge: Slow plot. Yes, readers in general find deep character work compelling. But that doesn’t mean a novel can just rely on character to keep the reader turning the pages. For that to happen, there needs to be a causally linked series of events, with emotional stakes, that escalates over the course of a story to a distinct breaking point—in other words, a real plot.

A good observation, with the limitation that sometimes — as I think many of us agree — a low-stakes novel about characters and relationships is just the ticket. I’m sure we all just thought of The Hands of the Emperor here, among others. Lowell’s The Wizard’s Butler. And so forth and so on. Many of us preferred this kind of book last year, I know. I sure did.

Okay! So, a post that makes some good points. By all means click through and read the whole thing if you’re interested. If you’re a character-first author, how much does all this resonate for you? I think I agree with a lot of it.

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10 thoughts on “Start with character”

  1. I remember that Wheel of Time review, and that the POV list reached triple digits, but 140 sounded slightly too large. Nope: I just asked Google and it confidently informed me that the series has 148 POV characters, directing to a page at the fandom wiki which lists them all by chapter. Good grief.

    Do character readers expect an arc every single time? Surely watching Nero, Archie & co. strut their stuff again is one of the main pleasures of Rex Stout’s series?

  2. This is interesting, because I at once thought confidently, “ah yes, I am a character-driven author,” but then I stopped and thought about it, and while I *am* a character-driven author, I rarely start with the characters, I start with the story concept. What happens then is that the nugget of story bounces around in my brain for a while (“Agatha Christie but with magic,” or “selkies in present-day Maine,” to list just two), and it doesn’t really start to coalesce into an actual story until the characters march onto the stage and bring it to life. That’s when I can start writing it.

    I hate the idea of starting with theme, I think I’d immediately start lecturing instead of story-telling. I am sure there are writers who can start with theme and do it well, but it would kill the story for me. I usually only realize the theme after the story is written and my critique partner has read it and then tells me what the theme is.

  3. Allan Lawrence Shampine

    Man, I remember how I stopped Wheel of Time when the series ground to a halt, precisely because you’d get a 50 chapter book, each chapter devoted to a different POV character, and the whole plot would advance by about a day. I exaggerate a bit, but only a bit. Also happened with GRRM and Game of Thrones, although I never much cared for that series. Not every long series succumbs to this, but accumulation of cool characters in a long series is a problem. Sometimes solved with spinoff series, which I’ve always liked.

  4. Allan Lawrence Shampine

    I just went to the Wheel of Time blog. I was curious how many of the POV characters appeared in more than one chapter, which is a good way of testing bloat. Based on a rough count, I got 67 characters who appeared in at least two different chapters. That is a LOT. Plus, of course, roughly 80 who appear only once…

  5. Craig, that’s an interesting comment. Since Nero and Archie don’t change, or only very (very) slightly over the course of the entire series, I think a lot of people would say that these books definitely are not character driven — even though watching the characters act exactly like themselves in each and every installment is the reason many people enjoy the series. Kind of raises the question of just what we mean by “believable characters” in the first place.

    Louise, it’s good to know other authors also have to be told by readers what their important themes were. Glad it’s not just me.

    Allan, I lose interest very quickly when each chapter is from a different pov. In fact, one of the books I discarded this past week — a very good, beautifully written literary novel centered around Thoroughbred breeding and racing — kept switching from one pov character to another, with several of the characters being disagreeable, and I lost interest. I’d have read a full novel about (a) the competent and nice trainer; (b) the other trainer rehabilitating the gray horse who’d been badly treated; (c) the jockey with the knack for listening to horses. But with their plotlines woven through a whole bunch of unsympathetic characters, I eventually quit. I did look at the ending of the book to see how a couple of their stories turned out.

  6. That’s interesting, Rachel. I had the same experience. A beautifully written intro to a book, but 4% into the story and the author’s switched POVs on me three times. I can’t bond with a character if I’m ripped out of their head and dumped into someone else’s every few pages. It’s like the literary equivalent of speed dating.

  7. Evelyn, I’m going to use “like the literary equivalent of speed dating” to describe this sort of thing forever now. That’s a perfect analogy.

  8. I wonder if some of the problems of proliferating character POV are an effect of the currently preferred styles of storytelling. I’ve been thinking about this and how say, GGK, in Last Lght of the Sun (at least in that one of his books, if not others) uses omniscent POV and drops us into a minor character’s POV and then draws back out and and summarizes the rest of the character’s life in a paragraph or so. That’s it, end of the importance for this narrative of that character. This is a technique I’ve seen in the Icelandic sagas too, which may be why GGK chose to use it in that particular novel. Other writers from, oh, forty/fifty years ago also were much less tight in the POV department, but had ways of signaling, this is a minor character we’re not going to follow him. They somehow got it across in the writing. But when everything has to be a tight third or first person, you lose the ways of signaling ‘minor character, bit part, won’t be back.’ When I see writers try it usually comes off rather clumsy, although admittedly often because we got the new POV just before they get killed. Or because they’re obviously there because it was the easy way to get the info to the character. (and then they get killed.)

    Even well regarded books, such as that Steifvater quartet leave me feeling yanked around by the POV shifts. I never have read it all the way through.

  9. I seldom doubt who the main character is,but I don’t think I am character driven

  10. Where do narratives like Sherlock HOlmes fit into this? Narrator is one person, the protagonist or narrative focus is on someone else? Or does no one write those anymore? The most recent example I can dredge up is an early Gillian Bradshaw, but surely there are others?

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