by J.D. Rhoades
I know, sounds like a romance novel title, doesn’t it? But it seems to have gotten your attention…
"character-driven" fiction. I’ve always thought it was a false dichotomy, however. In my opinion, character drives plot. Or to be more
specific, characters have desires,
and it’s desire that drives plot.
I was thinking about
this a few days ago during an e-mail exchange with a young aspiring writer. He
had all these characters, he said, but he didn’t know what to do with
them. This is what I told him:
Figure out what each of your characters wants,
in the short term and in the long term. In real life, people want more
than one thing, and the same should be true in your fiction. For
main character may want to rule the world, he may also want to get the
girl. For each character, then, write out: what are their deepest
desires? What will
they do to achieve them? Will they have to sacrifice one desire to
There’s a lot of potential for drama in that last
question, by the way, as some of the most wrenching conflicts can
occur where a character has to give up one cherished desire for
another. Classic example: in THE MALTESE FALCON, Sam Spade desperately wants Brigid
O’Shaughnessy, or whatever the hell her real name is, but he also
wants to find out and bring to justice whoever killed his partner. When
those two desires collide–when Spade finds out that his love is the
one who did the deed–the result is one of the most brutal speeches in all of hard-boiled literature:
"When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it.
It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your
partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. And it happens
we’re in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization
gets killed, it’s-it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it,
bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere…I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes, angel,
I’m gonna send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That
means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting
for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you."
Another example: in THE GODFATHER, Michael wants to live his life free of the Mob and its associated violence. But he also loves and wants to protect his family. When his father’s life is threatened, he has to act on the second desire, and finds himself losing the first.
As stated above, characters often have a short and a long term desire. In my Jack Keller books, Jack, of course, wants to track down and bring in his target. But his long term desire, even though he has trouble admitting it, is to learn to connect with people and to love again. Another example: Michael Connelley’s Harry Bosch wants to solve the mystery in every book. But what drives him, book to book, is the desire to in his words, "speak for the dead."
Which brings us to another way that character can create drama: some characters have desires that they don’t realize or don’t admit. Harry Bosch’s real long term goal is to avenge the death of his mother, to make her almost unnoticed death matter. So the other thing that drives him is his motto: "everyone counts or no one counts."
Now that you’ve got a handle on what your characters want, figure out which characters’ desires conflict with those of other
characters. For the most obvious example, in a traditional mystery, the bad guy wants to get away,
the good guy wants to stop him (and probably get the girl). In a heist novel, the protagonists want the loot, but they come into conflict with each because one or more of them wants a bigger share (or the girl). Zombies want
to eat people, the hero wants to avoid being eaten (and probably get the girl).
Mix those together. See what happens. When you get stuck for what happens next, as an alternative to having a man with a gun come through the door, remember what each character’s
goal is and think about what they’d do next to accomplish it (which may or may not involve coming through the door with a gun).
Keep in mind as well that, in the words of the famous quote, "no one is a villain in his own eyes." The antagonist, if he’s not a maniacally cackling, hand rubbing cartoon villain, has reasons for his actions which seem perfectly logical and consistent to him, even if they may not seem that way to the reader. Or, as I put it, the villain thinks he’s the hero.
Even minor characters’ desires can move the plot. In JURASSIC PARK, Dennis the computer guy wants the money he thInks Hammond owes him. So he comes up with a scheme to swipe some dinosaur embryos, which involves the crucial plot point of turning off the safety systems, he thinks for a short time. But, unfortunately for poor Dennis, dinos have the desire to eat.
In BREAKING COVER, Tony Wolf wants to hide, to disappear. But he’s
also unable to stand by while a child is hurt, so his gives up his anonymity for a crucial moment. Johnny Trent wants to
find Wolf and do terrible things to him because of the damage Wolf did to him. Tim Buckthorn wants to keep
his town safe, and that means finding out who this enigmatic stranger
who’s moved into the area really is. Gabriella Torrijos wants the
story behind this guy who suddenly erupted onto the landscape, then
disappeared again. All of these people want something that’s totally
reasonable and understandable for them, but they can’t all get what
they want. And so, you have a story.
So, today’s discussion question: Apply this analysis to one of your favorite books (which, writer ‘Rati, may include your most recent one or even your WIP). What does your protagonist desire? What does your antagonist desire? How does that drive the plot? How do the desires of supporting or even minor characters move things along?