Character-Driven Writing

Following the character wherever he may go

Over and over again in the process of writing my novel, I’ve stumbled across things about my characters that were unexpected. This is what I love about “literary” or character-driven fiction. It means letting the characters take you a little off-track from your plot outline, because you might discover some really cool things.

A recent chapter I was writing felt unfinished, I only had one scene. So I decided to let the protagonist tell me where to go next. He’s a bit OCD, so if his cell phone tweeted to remind him about an appointment, he would surely get himself there on time. So off he goes to a dentist’s appointment. I wasn’t too sure about this at first, what on earth was I going to do with a routine dentist visit? But I followed the character there anyway just to see what happened. It became an opportunity to characterize him further as he sits in the waiting room. I got to play with his feelings of loneliness and isolation. And the stressful sounds of drilling and scraping once he’s in the dentist’s office provoke upsetting flashbacks from the past, nearly sending him into a panic. So I was handed some conflict and emotional content as well as a great foreshadowing opportunity, which helps build suspense. Something fascinating happened that I’d never planned. In a dentist’s chair.

These opportunities make characters deeper and more believable. I’ve certainly learned the importance of structuring the story line for a full-length book; I need to take readers on a purposeful journey. But I also have to let my characters pull me in directions I didn’t expect — there’s so much more there than I imagined. They become real people. This is the exciting part of writing: discovering characters in their fullness, peeling them layer by layer.