03 September 2012

Character vs Story: a Dialogue

According to the delectable Shannon Hale, there are a couple different approaches to writing fiction: Character driven, and Story driven.  Although it seems self-explanatory, I’m going to explain, or perhaps just illustrate.  Or both.

In a character driven story, it’s all about the growth of the individual.  The story is something that happens to them.  Usually the characters feel like a real person and their development means something.  In a story driven tale, the characters are there as part of a larger picture.  They are the means by which the story happens.

Case in point:  “Anne of Green Gables”

Which do you think it is?

I’m just going to tell you, since I can’t hear your answers.  Everything written by L.M. Montgomery is character driven.  She is a master at making paper people come to life.  Every person in those stories has a history, personality, quirks, mannerisms, dreams, vexations, talents, the works.  It’s fascinating to think that all these people are the product of some lady’s imagination.  I swear I know Mrs. Rachel Lind.  In fact, Ms. Montgomery wrote an entire book, “A Tangled Web” that I’m pretty sure started out as an exercise in character writing, because that’s what it is.  A professor could teach a semester-long class on that book alone and how Montgomery manages to keep each person in that extensive family distinct.  This approach to writing takes a little more effort to keep a reader’s attention, perhaps, but it is well worth it.

Anything written by Charles Dickens, “The Secret Life of Bees” and the original “Winnie the Pooh” books are character driven.  In any setting in any country, Carles Darnay would still love Lucie Manette, and despair of ever improving himself.  Mrs. Havisham would still be creepy.  Pooh Bear would share adventures with Christopher Robin. 

I was going to make a long list of character stories, but I find I can’t think of many.  Most novels, are story driven.  At least, I think so.  That may be because I am a story driven person, so even when it’s about characters, I see story.  Sad, really, but there it is.

[And it is sad.  I just looked over my bookshelves to prove to myself that most novels are story driven, and I realized my bias has tainted everything.  There are a lot of character driven novels.  A lot.  Probably a good half.]

Louis L’Amour books are all story driven, and possibly even setting driven.   He writes about things that could only happen during a certain time in a certain place. (Not every book he wrote was set in the Cowboy West, I realize, but every one was written about a PLACE, and things that could only happen there.)  The men and women in his stories are products of their time and place and rise up to face the challenges in their surroundings.  (Okay, so he may just create another category.)

Story Driven books are everywhere.  Take a look at anything written by Robin McKinley, Sharon Shinn, J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, Victoria Holt, etc.  Their characters are well written, but they are there to make events happen.  To tell a story.  Could the one ring have been carried or disposed of by any character other than a Frodo Baggins?  Voldemort would never have been vanquished by anything other than a Harry Potter.  The stories are what define the characters, not the other way around.

Now that I’ve analyzed this a bit more, I will think of it more often as I read.  Perhaps it will make me a more character driven writer.  Perhaps it will make my stories a bit better.

One can only hope.

This just in:  Danica Page's review of "Uneasy Fortunes" can be read on her blog.  And it's a doosy.  Thanks so much to her for such a great review.

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