Writers use two structural techniques to drive a story forward: the character driven story and the plot driven story. The character driven story connects the reader to the character, and that connection needs to be made almost immediately. Once the reader flips through a couple of pages, they need to be intrigued enough by the character that they have a deep desire to keep reading. If the reader doesn’t connect quickly with the character, they may lose interest early on and abandon the story.
Novice writers oftentimes depend on the introduction of physical characteristics, assuming they will give the reader an image of the character and that will be enough to catch the reader’s attention. It never is enough, because readers don’t choose to read because of a character’s eye or hair color; rather they choose to read a story because they find the character interesting enough that they want to know what will happen to them.
Overly Simplified Characterization
Take a look at this example of this character introduction.
Margaret was tall for her age. She was already 6 feet tall and looked even taller because she was so skinny. Her long brown hair hung down her back in a braid. She had blue eyes and freckles on her nose and cheeks. Margaret had a cat named Cushion because she was so soft and squishy.
Introducing a character with physical descriptions like height, weight, and features is typical of new writers, but this type of characterization does not engage the reader. To successfully intrigue the reader to want to continue reading, the writer needs to give the reader a reason to connect with the reader as soon as possible. Unfortunately, eye and hair color won’t do that. If a character descriptor is not relevant to the story, then it is unnecessary.
Engaging Characterization Descriptions
Take a look at another example. This is the introduction to David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. In the first two paragraphs, the reader learns about David Copperrfield, the character.
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held
by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I
record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve
o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry,
In consideration of the day and hour of my birth, it was declared by the nurse, and by
some sage women in the neighbourhood who had taken a lively interest in me several
months before there was any possibility of our becoming personally acquainted, first,
that I was destined to be unlucky in life; and secondly, that I was privileged to see ghosts
and spirits; both these gifts inevitably attaching, as they believed, to all unlucky infants of
either gender, born towards the small hours on a Friday night.
The first paragraph is very unique. We get no physical description of Copperfield at all, but we do get a sense of his viewpoint on life. For what starts out as a unique introduction, we find out he was both at midnight. That is not particularly interesting quite yet, but it does tell us that his birth must be unique, because he chose to tell this story in first person point of view.
In the second paragraph, we get the foreshadowing and character revelation. A wise women predicted that Copperfield would be unlucky in life and that he would see ghosts. At this point, the reader can connect with Copperfield as a character. All of us have felt unlucky at some point in our lives. We have all wondered, especially during a span of bad luck, that we must have been born under the wrong stars or the universe had it out for us. Copperfield’s birth was predicted from the start to be questionable, and that alone makes him an interesting character. When readers have an interesting character that makes them wonder what will happen to them and makes them care, they keep reading.
Reveal Character Through Dialogue
Just as writers can introduce a character through description that connects with the reader, so writers can use dialogue. The words, phrases, and mannerisms a character uses when they speak can tell the reader a lot about the character. And if readers know that a character is interesting, they can connect with the character and engage with the story.
In the first lines of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, readers get a sense of who Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are. These are not the protagonist or antagonist, but they are characters closely connected with the protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, and they set up the scene to introduce the protagonist.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune
must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a
neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he
is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield
Park is let at last?”
Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.
“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”
Mr. Bennet made no answer.
“Do not you want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife, impatiently.
“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”
The last line in the chapter introducing Mrs. Bennet reads:
The business of her life was to get her daughters married: its solace was visiting and
From the first page of the story, the reader knows what is going on and who is involved in the action. This is a marriage story, but it does not start out as a love story. No, this is a story about pragmatic marriage, the social agreement about financial and social stability not the coupling of people in love. At least, that’s how Mrs. Bennet begins her speech about the exciting Mr. Bingley who moved into the neighborhood. Since he’s both single and rich, Mrs. Bennet is convinced (and tries to convince her husband) that Mr. Bingley will fall in love with one of her daughters and marry one.
Mrs. Bennet’s purpose as a matchmaker determined to connect her daughters is established not only in the foreshadowing first line of the book but in her dialogue, since her only concern is of marriage. What does this tell the reader about Mrs. Bennet? Well, she has not yet met Mr. Bingley and has no idea what kind of person he is, but she is convinced that he will marry one of her daughters for their beauty. Her purpose is to make matches with wealthy men, and her words and descriptions tell the reader that up front. The reader connects with the story, not because she is likeable, but because she has a real, human personality with purpose, drive, and flaws.
Setting Up the Character Driven Story
A character driven story must have a strong character to push the story forward. If nothing happens in the story, the reader is likely to disengage from the story and abandon it for another one. So, give your character an engaging description to pull your reader into the story. If the reader is interested in the character(s), even if they don’t necessarily like the characters or identify with them, they are more likely to enjoy them and continue reading. Describe your characters not by their physical features but by who they are on the inside.
The Character’s Past
Just as every person has a past, present, and future, give your character a thorough story. Spending dozens of pages rattling out every detail of a character’s past will become very boring very quickly. Instead, offer bits of information about the character’s major experiences that defined who they are as an individual. As your reader learns more about the character, their interest should increase, because they become more curious to know more.
An interesting character has flaws, problems, concerns, and distractions. Just as people are complicated, so should characters be. A character that feels real to the reader is one that has pet peeves, random thoughts, irrational emotions, and inconvenient urges. When a character comes across as being real to the reader, the reader feels more connected to them. A character should have problems, things that bother them, goals they haven’t yet achieved, and personal issues. Including descriptions of these details make the character feel more alive to readers.
As you read, ask yourself how the writer is presenting their characters. Reading to evaluate other writers’ techniques can help you become a more sophisticated writer. Then apply those techniques to your own writing. The more interesting your characters are, the more likely your reader will connect with your characters and love your stories.
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