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April 1, 2016

Breadcrumbs from the Void #8 The Devil is in the Details: Character-Driven Writing by Alex Schumacher

Alex Schumacher

The Devil is in the Details: Character-Driven Writing

by Alex Schumacher

It was only a matter of time before these here internets were corrupted by another Bread Crumbs from the Void. Today’s entry marks number eight in my series of columns stuffed to the gills of real advice, bereft of the phony cheerleading you will find in other articles. Success is a wonderful, if not fickle, achievement. My aim with Bread Crumbs from the Void is not to guarantee you that fame and fortune awaits. I will never make false promises or assure you that everything will be alright. What I will always strive to do is grab you by the short and curlys, drag your lazy-ass from the sofa, and push you to be productive.

Do you know how many home runs you can hit if you never step to the plate? If you answered zero, well then you get a gold fucking star for today.

The one party favor I hope you take away is this: if you harbor any desire whatsoever to be published, you must be producing. Constantly. I am not one of those blowhards who will condemn you for not writing every day. I sure as shit do not. With a full time job and the hustle and bustle of our modern world I find such an expectation to be unrealistic. You do need to find a way to carve out a few hours on a consistent basis – every few days, every weekend, etc. – to devote to your craft.

While I am on the subject of craft, this week I am treating you to a peep show into the world of character-driven writing. If you become overstimulated and cream yourself with excitement, I only ask that you clean up. The janitor is on vacation.

Designated Driver

Last week I touched on some of the finer points of plot-driven writing. If you missed that article, you can go back and read it here: If you do not give a shit about plot-driven writing, please feel free to continue unmolested.

Determining whether your piece is plot-driven or character-driven is not all that difficult. While character elements do exist in a plot-driven story, there is a much greater emphasis on the actual story itself. Devices such as plot twists, action scenes and external confrontations are where the focus lies. By and large, in plot-driven writing the resolution is achieved through situational circumstances as opposed to the characters who endure said occurrences.

In plot-driven writing the development of the characters rides bitch to the events which rapidly unfold around them. The characters themselves are not even necessarily essential to the overall storyline. Typically if you can replace or surgically remove one or more of your main characters without affecting the outcome, your story is plot-driven.

Moreover, character-driven writing focuses on the characterization, inner conflict, and/or relationships of the characters you have created. Inner conflicts consist of everything from subtle explorations to esoteric searches for purpose in a seemingly meaningless existence. Relationships could be showcased in many lights. Whether they are volatile or passionate, lustful or co-dependent is your choice.

Unlike plot-driven writing, these interactions are based solely on the personalities you have Frankensteined from pieces of the egos, temperaments, and identities of those around you.

Character-driven writing should put your reader in a god-damn choke hold. They should be enamored, aroused, and transfixed by the people you have introduced into their world. Your characters attitudes, personal evolutions, and decisions should take them on a wet and wild ride. The shape of the plot or the story as a whole should play second fiddle to the trials, tribulations, and tantalizing brutality of the human spirit.

Plots that are character driven are commonly referred to as “literary fiction” due to the fact that they feature characters that possess multiple layers that are exposed as the story develops. Often the story will be a depiction of a character’s inner process as they struggle to resolve issues from their past or possibly shift their present outlook. In the absence of a James Patterson-esque page turner, literary fiction often relies on a unique style or an authentic voice to move the story along.

What a Character!

Personally I am drawn to character-driven storytelling as it carries more weight and bleeds gravitas. The writing tends to feel more authentic to me, creating a lasting impression and, in some cases, altering an opinion that I may have previously held.

Creating complex characters can take some time. As with the myriad other bizarre-ass practices of the creative type, you will spend many an isolated moment thinking about your characters. It is essential to have minute aspects such as pet peeves, fetishes, deformities, etc. worked out beforehand. While the reader will not need to know all the dirty little skeletons in your characters closet, it is important that you do. The better you know your characters, the more realistic your portrayal of them will end up when slapped on the page.

There are a number of details to ponder when molding your characters. Some of these include:

  1. Where does your character live?
  2. Where is your character’s background?
  3. How old is your character?
  4. What does your character look like?
  5. What kind of childhood did he or she have?
  6. Beer or wine?
  7. Boxers or briefs?

You get the idea. You will need to know your character intimately. Get all up in their grill, leaving no crevice unexplored. For this reason I tend to base characters on family, friends, and acquaintances from my own life. Who do I know better than the people I interact with on a regular – or regular-ish – basis? These are traits, ticks, and quirks you have internalized without even realizing you have done so. In your writing is where you can use them to your advantage.

What are family and friends for if not to be mocked and tormented in thinly veiled prose?

An integral element to bear in mind as you are creating your characters is to fit them with distinct, individual personalities. The main character specifically must stand out for one reason or another. Nothing gives me a bad case of the geyser shits like trudging my way through a block of story where every single character acts and speaks in similar, if not the same, manner. No two people are exactly alike, so neither should your characters be carbon copies of one another.

They can share opinions, ideologies, or even specific tastes. The ways in which they express said aspects of their psyche or emotional intelligence should be entirely different. You can achieve such contrast by using certain attributes. Some of these features may include:

  • Disgusting habits, like biting toenails
  • Particular senses of humor, like juvenile dick and fart jokes
  • Disorders such as obsessive compulsive or attention deficit

Consistency is another key principle to discuss at this juncture. Viewpoints and behaviors are hammered into a person’s subconscious over years and years of experience. Barring an incredible, act-of-god plot twist (which would be plot-driven, not character-driven) these characteristics do not change overnight.

For example, if one of your characters in a neo-Nazi, the fucktard would not have a Jewish “bestie”. Unless of course, the bigoted asshole was unaware his compadre was one of the chosen people and it was to be revealed later in the story to create conflict (School Ties, anyone?).

Above all else your characters must feel as though they exist. They should be a nosey busy-body like your elderly next door neighbor, or uncomfortably calm and collected in any given situation like the older kid you used to buy pot from in middle school. Dudes sometimes prematurely ejaculate. Women get their periods. These are merely realities we all face. Your characters should face them as well.

Taboos are for Quakers and Puritans. In your writing, nothing should be off limits.

Beginning next week Bread Crumbs from the Void will be moving to a bi-weekly schedule. Dry your eyes, children. The publishing shift is to facilitate additional content being produced for Five 2 One Magazine. That is all I can say for now. Until next time keep scribbling, you freaks.


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