Characters or Story: What Drives Your Writing?

ACFWAdvice, Authors and writing, Characters, Friends of ACFW, Plots, tips, writing 2 Comments

by Glynn Young

I was having an email exchange with a writer and poet who had just published a novel. Specifically, we were discussing how each of us wrote fiction.

She had trouble, she said, with multi-viewpoint novels. Her stories tended to be character-driven, and especially lead character-driven. She said she found multi-viewpoint novels confusing.

Multi-viewpoint novels are what I write. But I don’t call them “multi-viewpoint.” I call them story-driven.

This isn’t to say that character-driven novels can’t have a strong story line, or that story-driven can’t have strong characterization. But you know when you’re reading a novel that is character-driven and one that is story-driven. One is not superior to the other. They are simply different ways of writing.

I’ve never had a character do something that was either unexpected or disrupted the story. I’ve never had a character suddenly take on a mind of his or her own and change the story that I was writing. My sense of the story is too strong to let that happen. I’ve added actions and scenes. But they fit the overall direction the story is going.

I suspect my “story-centeredness” reflects my journalism training and my corporate speech writing experience. It also likely reflects the fact that I “arced-out” what is currently my three-novel series in my head years before I put the first word on a computer screen. And if the series goes forward, I know what the stories are for the next five novels.

The story of one young man is at the heart of three books. In the first, it’s part of a larger group of characters’ stories but he remains at the center. In the second, there is a period in which someone else must tell the story because he’s incapacitated. In the third, the story becomes so large that it can’t be told by just one narrator or character. To tell it properly requires all of the key players.

That said, my own favorite parts of the third novel are the ones where the young man’s character deepens and grows, where he follows both his training and his instinct in new and potentially perilous situations. But the story requires that to happen, because it is a story of national change, in which a country begins to move into unknown waters simply because it can’t go backward or stay still.

At the editor’s suggestion, I did add a character in the second novel. What this new character accomplished was to propel the tension from the beginning of the story to the very end. And I used the same approach in the third novel – adding a character who became a kind of villainous mastermind. But the story line never changed; the new character propelled it forward.

I’d like to say that this story of national change had been my known theme from the time I first began writing. It wasn’t. It was there, but it was so subtle as to be almost hidden. It began to emerge in the third novel, where I began to see it clearly. A few weeks after I understood my own theme, a rather astute reader said, “You’re questioning the very basis of constitutional government in this novel.”

She had caught the big story.

Are you stories character-driven or story-driven? @gyoung9751 discusses why it made a difference for him. #ACFWBlog Click To Tweet

Glynn Young is a national award-winning speechwriter and communications executive. He’s the author of three novels, Dancing Priest, A Light Shining, and Dancing King, and the non-fiction book Poetry at Work. Visit Glynn at Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, his blog, the Dancing Priest book page, and his business web site.





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