Starting Your Novel With Character: 3 Strengths and 3 Challenges

Today’s post is by regular contributor Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), an award-winning author, editor, and book coach. She offers a first 50-page review on works in progress for novelists seeking direction on their next step toward publishing.

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. In the course of this three-part series, I’ll address the natural strengths of each type, along with challenges faced in revision.

Writers who start with character tend to be empathetic people—“people people,” you might say. A new story for these folks may arrive in the form of a certain voice in their head, or a line or two that seems promising.

Or they might be struck at first by a type of character—for instance, a character who’s a bit like an intriguing person they happen to know, or a bit like a character in a book or movie they loved.

Regardless of how the character arrives, when given a name and a context, that character quickly develops a compelling backstory and three-dimensional depth, taking on a life of their own.

Often this type of writer has had this character in her head for years—sometimes even decades. She knows the character well, including their family dynamics, early childhood traumas, passions, phobias, secret insecurities, you name it. This type of writer is also prone to carrying over the same characters from one book to another, because they’ve come to know those characters so well.

Starting with character can be a very effective way to begin a novel, and writers who do so have these natural advantages on their side:

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.

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. All of this comes naturally to this type of writer, because her characters are so real to her from the get go that they only become more complex and compelling over multiple drafts.

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. Which is to say, there’s a solid contingency of readers who read fiction for exactly what writers who start with character are generally able to deliver, on every single page: The sense of being someone else, seeing the world through their eyes, and going through a meaningful transformation or change over the course of the story.

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.

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).

These type of writers are not like directors looking for actors to play a part in their story—they’re more like directors making a biopic, with the story as a whole built around a certain character. (Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge is a good example.)

That said, there are several challenges writers who start with character tend to face.

Challenge: Too many POVs

If you do something well as a writer, why not do more of it? That’s often the position taken by writers who start with character, whether they realize it or not, by adding many different POVs in their novels.

Taking the points of view of other characters comes easily to such writers, and they generally find it fun, because they don’t struggle to get inside the heads of the protagonist’s husband, for example, or her kids, or even the checkout clerk at the grocery store where she shops.

And 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.

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.

But without an issue or flaw—what story coach Lisa Cron calls a “misbelief”—there’s no real basis for a character arc, no clear way that the story will push the protagonist to grow and change. The first drafts of such novels tend to explore situations, events, and issues in the protagonist’s life without necessarily tracking a clear arc of change.

Challenge: Episodic or 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.

Because such writers often start by essentially following their characters around to see what they will say and do, they often face a real challenge in their second draft, which is to find a dramatic arc for the events of the story. This may involve moving events around in time, finding ways to link them in a more causal way, and/or working out a climax for the story and then restructuring it, so it builds to that point from multiple angles.

None of these issues are in any way insurmountable, and the more you get to understand yourself as a writer, the more comfortable you’ll become with your own process, both in drafting and revising.

Do you consider yourself a writer who starts with character? If so, I’d love to hear about your process in the comments below.

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