The Benefits of “Character-First” Writing

You don't have to worry about so many things.

That's the big insight of "character-first" writing. In a good novel, or narrative memoir, or long story, you feel the pressure to get so many things right:

  • the plot has to keep developing in a way that makes sense
  • the setting has to be accurate
  • the dialogue has to be "good"

and so on (you can probably fill in a few more of these "has to be" elements yourself).

The trouble is that it's very hard to try to get all of these elements right at the same time. To attempt to write "correctly" can be overwhelming, so you stop writing, or the end result is a kind of muddle that few readers can make sense of, or you become so confused by criticism and feedback that you get lost in constantly rewriting your early chapters.  

Now, as writers we have a way out of this labyrinth: the ability to improve the book over multiple drafts. The page we are writing today doesn't have to be the page another person eventually reads, although it could be. We can focus on one thing at a time and make our writing lives a lot easier.

This is where a lot of people will mention: "shitty first drafts." This brilliant idea by Anne Lamott suggests that, in a first draft, we just try to get the book written in some fashion. Get the big picture on the page, then make it good, later. 

I would like to argue something different today, however. For novelists, I think you are well-served by trying to create "character-first drafts." In other words: when you work on your writing, either by planning out the story, writing a piece of a scene, or reviewing a completed section and deciding what to do next, you should be focusing on the reader's relationship to the protagonist.

The overall plot serves to keep developing this relationship; the individual chapters maintain and deepen the relationship. I believe that's how we actually read: by establishing a relationship with a fictional person, a relationship that changes and grows as they go on their journey.

Get that right today and you can always come back tomorrow and fix that little inaccuracy or bad line of dialogue.

We learn to want things through other people

On the one hand, character-first writing, as a technique, is most directly applicable to written narratives, like novels. I suspect that films and plays allow us to connect to characters and stories in different ways. That's why this course will be specific in its examples and prompts: I intend this to be a novel-writing course, first and foremost, while also being helpful to narrative nonfiction writers, like memoirists. It's not a general "story" class: it's not going to help playwrights design an ensemble cast.

However, on the other hand, and at the same time, I also think that we live "character-first," in that we are constantly learning what we think based on what other people think. We use other people's opinions, to a large or small amount, to help form our own feelings about a topic. I once heard an expert on hate crimes say that when people change their minds about an awful belief, it's rarely because someone persuaded them they were wrong. It's not as though they read a really clever Facebook post about immigration and its benefits for economic development: it's instead because they slowly exited one group of peers, and slowly found another. They changed their mind as / because they changed their social setting.

We can all accept the weak version of this argument: the idea that, in some cases, our opinions are formed by the people around us. There is a harder-to-accept, stronger version of this argument, created by the social scientist René Girard, where our desires come to us almost entirely from outside: from our online social circle, from celebrities, from the people we follow on Instagram or who we see at church; then we subconsciously tell ourselves a "romantic lie" to invent a personal, internal reason that justifies why we want the same thing all our peers want.

We don't need to accept the strong version of this argument to be better fiction writers. Rather, we should use it to better understand our readers. They arrive in our stories with no frame of reference, with no sense of what things mean. They open our books with almost no innate ability to make sense of our scenes, our descriptions, our events. If we just open with a big fight scene on page one, they may be left cold. 

They may keep reading, but deep down, they are wondering, "Why are you telling me this?"

Even if Girard's theory is not 100% true and factual about real life, it seems a good description of how people read fiction. In other words, I believe it is a great way to understand your readers. As readers, we need to connect to a fictional person in order to feel and understand things about a fictional world. In older literature, this was often some combination of a narrator and a main character: we connected both to Jane Austen's characters and Austen's narrative voice, telling us soothingly about their world. In contemporary fiction, however -- the kind I imagine you are writing -- the majority of that burden needs to fall on the main character. They act as the reader's ambassador to the fictional world. So we need to design our stories, and our scenes, to equip our readers to inhabit and make sense of the words on the page.

character-first plotting is all about putting this "ambassadorship" at the heart of your writing

Do you want to try this idea out? Here is a quick prompt to think about ways to "teach" your reader, on a page by page level, what the events in your story are supposed to mean.

Click the image below to being -- or just click this link: the ambassadors prompt.

preview of the prompt
  • Your video is really good. And I like how you don’t just reiterate what is written below it. One thing that really stuck out for me is – the protag’s initial project and the plot of the real story, have incompatible goals.

    • That’s exactly it, Deidre. We see this most clearly in certain well-known genres — the romance where the career-minded, big city woman has come to a idyllic location to do something professional; the crime novel where the old crook is blackmailed into doing one last job… But it’s there, in a more subtle way, in all kinds of stories.

      • This is something I struggle with. I always know the story goal, but I often don’t know my protagonist’s goal. I only have one story that I recently developed where the character actually wants something prior to the big plot question. But I am trying to use this course to revise (read: restructure and rewrite almost from scratch) and I still can’t figure out what the protagonist wants. I also usually design characters to fit the story, so your suggestions are really new to me.

  • Excellent addition – thank you, Daniel. Loved the prompt, too. I really like the idea of being an ambassador who draws in the reader. One of the prompts has me rethinking who persuades the Protagonist to go after the story goal – and to question the motives of this ‘persuader’. Exciting.

  • hmcneilnz says:

    Enjoyed that lesson. It made me really think about the protagonist in this story – and how to reel her into all of the aspects of the plot: her romantic relationship, her internal construct of her father. At the moment I’ve just plonked her into both of those.

  • angela.shapow says:

    “it’s instead because they slowly exited one group of peers, and slowly found another. They changed their mind as / because they changed their social setting”. This resonates with me, and my story- the protagonist actually must accept that she needs to cut ties with people she genuinely loves in order to become a new, and better, person.

  • Brent Johnson says:

    I love this insight: “I also think that we live ‘character-first,’ in that we are constantly learning what we think based on what other people think. We use other people’s opinions, to a large or small amount, to help form our own feelings about a topic.”

    I don’t like preaching in any form of art. That for me is not what art is for. I believe that people should find their own connections with a work of art, and if you want to make a point in a novel, it should primarily be via how the reader connects with the lived experience of the characters. The characters may express opinions, but it is how those opinions play out in the characters’ actions and reactions which have the real significance.

  • umasrinivasanbooks says:

    I had to read this a couple of times to really understand the concept. And now I understand the character is fully involved in her own project, has her own agenda, which is peripheral to the main plot. But it this thing she cares about that makes her do things that move the story. In other words the character doesn’t inhibit the story space, but the story moves because of her interest in her own project that becomes difficult due to things happening in the story. It is a radical mind shift.
    Thanks a lot for this ,

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