What is Character First Writing?

Let's be honest: there are a lot of people teaching writing skills online. And in many ways, that's a good thing. You have so many choices for advice about plot, character, narration… Why spend your time with me?

Another way of asking that question is: what is "character-first writing," and why should I care about it? What difference does learning this approach make to my writing?

what is character-first writing?

Character-first writing is, at its heart, just a way of teaching you storytelling. That maybe sounds too simple. And yet storytelling is hard! It's the hardest part of being a fiction writer / novelist.

Character-first writing is an approach to storytelling, a framework, that cuts out all of the extra burdens that many other writing teachers claim are necessary. It simplifies your work of plotting and designing chapters, leaving you feeling much clearer and more confident about your future as a writer.

If you've been around the writing world for a while, parts of this approach will seem familiar, like things you've heard before delivered in a new way. Other parts may seem more controversial, harder to process at first. But the end result is transformative.

(If you are new to writing stories, or new to the idea of studying how to tell them: welcome! I hope everything that follows will simply sound like good common sense.)

1: Plot is a relationship

What readers want and need are two different things. 

Readers want many things. They expect many things. When they look at a book's cover, and read its synopsis, they already are imagining, consciously or semi-consciously, the sort of book they are being promised: a writing style, a list of key scenes, certain emotional experiences...

And you probably should try to deliver on those expectations!

However, while readers want all kinds of things in their books, they actually need one thing, and one thing only.

Readers know what they want.

Without that one thing, they can't actually read long enough to get to the parts they told you they wanted. Without this, they won't every read your beautiful ruminations, your shocking flashbacks, your daring conflicts, your insightful comments about eighteenth century Antwerp.

In order to enjoy your story, the reader must establish a connection with a main character. It's only through this connection that they are able to understand what is going on and feel its significance. The main character is like the reader's mirror image, their ambassador to the fictional world you created.

And this is true -- it sounds crazy but it's 100% true -- EVEN when the reader is reading something in their preferred genre. Yes, even when you show lifelong fantasy readers the first chapter of a fantasy novel, they are still (unconsciously) waiting to make contact with their story-ambassador: one or more main characters. The same is true for cultivated literary readers. 

Plot, then, can be seen as the development of that connection. We form the connection in the opening pages, and then we develop and deepen that connection, chapter by chapter, by the rising stakes and scope of the plot. It's plot that turns our initial connection with a character (or characters) into a relationship.

"Plot turns our initial connection with a character (or characters) into a relationship."

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Now, you might be thinking: "Daniel! Of course I create a relationship with my characters!"

But my experience is that so many writers get their priorities backwards. Rather than building up this character connection, they open their novel with so much other stuff, or allow the story to wander off track between page 50 and 70.

Some writers focus on the story's scope, on their earnest world-building, racing to get a whole cast of minor characters on to the page. 

Others feel the urge to educate or impress a reader with deep thoughts, elaborate flashbacks and backstory, filling in all kinds of details while the story itself languishes. Others worry the reader is already getting bored on page one, so they attempt to deliver massive drama on page four.

Character-first writing simplifies all of these concerns. This approach tells you what to focus on, and what you can safely postpone mentioning. Suddenly, it's clear how you develop the story, and what elements will pull it off course.

2: PAGE ONE MUST BE GOOD

Now let me ask an uncomfortable question.

Have you ever tried out someone's writing advice, or attended a class, and thought at the time: "Wow, this is wonderful! This teacher is explaining so much. I get it now!"

But when you get back to your desk, this next morning, you find that your writing is unchanged, you still can't get chapter three to make sense, and you feel even worse than before. "That teacher was so brilliant, and yet I'm not making progress. I must be a terrible writer."

Here's one reason why this happens: there are actually two ways to read a story. And both are meaningful, enjoyable, and valuable. The problem is: only one of those ways is actually helpful for us as writers.

What are these two ways? Simple. Reading from the end versus reading from the beginning.

When we have finished a book, or we are studying with a teacher, we tend to read the first way, from the end. We are describing all the cool elements in the story, the repetitions and motifs, and — even more importantly — we are most conscious, most likely, of the amazing mystery or drama or conflict the writer created. That's what lingers in our mind: the fullness of the story, or what was visible in it by the end.

the happy writer

But that's not at all how we were reading when we were first discovering the book. At the start of the book, we didn't know any of these characters. We didn't know about all the surprises and connections that were coming. Rather, we had a reading experience that likely consisted of two main elements:

  • a connection to the main character
  • the growing suspicion that something big was coming

That's all we knew! It was enough to keep us reading, though.

Why is this important? Well, the simplest answer is — while reading from the end is great, reading from the beginning is the most useful way to read for writers. After all, when you are writing chapter one, there is no chapter two. It doesn't exist. Even if you have outlined every scene, you still haven't created the fictional experience on the page — until you type it out. So reading from the end is a kind of make-believe, a way of you talking about your book as though you have already written it.

This distinction is also important because so much writing advice is based around reading stories from the end. So many good writing books and writing teachers have amazing advice to offer, but it's often advice about finished books: repeating motifs, symbols, mythical resonances, the eight critical beats for your genre, the hero's journey. It all sounds like it is helping you think about your story from the beginning, helping you write your novel from page one, but actually it's telling you useful information about finished books.

"A lot of writing advice talks about your book as though you've already finished it."

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Finished books, perhaps, resemble the hero's journey, or have the correct beats in the correct order. And that's definitely interesting to think about. But none of that advice and criticism is particularly helpful when you are trying to write a good page one. 

Character-first writing is all about reading from the beginning. It's all about the tools and techniques you need to write a great first page, and then a great second page, and then onwards. This is important, by the way, because you, as the writer, are also reading your own story, and if it reads poorly as you go, you're likely to lose momentum.

Additionally, it's about giving the reader an engaging & compelling experience as they start your book. Once they start reading, after all, they are also reading from the beginning.

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Michael Noltemeyer

Writer & Teacher

Daniel really is the novel whisperer, the literary midwife. He's everything his other clients have said he is. It’s all true. This program really is that helpful. He really is that good.

3: TAKE THE HIGH ROAD

My teaching is opinionated.

For me, one of the biggest errors writing teachers / coaches can make is trying to teach everything. You end up teaching platitudes.

So while, in my blog, I will discuss all sorts of fictions and narratives, I am much more restricted when I attempt to help other writers finish their books.

My teaching focuses on the kind of storytelling I have hinted at above: fast-moving, engaging, profound character-based storytelling. That means that there are styles of writing I admire and enjoy, but don't teach, such as what is usually called "experimental" fiction.

Yuan in cosplay

Yuan Sigel

Fantasy writer

Your approach fits perfectly with my way of outlining and planning. It’s subtle enough to allow for spontaneous and natural occurring changes along the way, but gets down the essential and critical parts of the plot where you need it.

I love experimental fiction. Some of my best friends are experimental writers. But I have no illusion I can teach you to do what they do.

I also don't teach people how to write the sorts of novels I dislike, such as self-indulgent, reader-hostile, storytelling-aspiring-to-be-homework "literary" fiction. Nor do I have much to offer writers of absolutely formulaic, mechanical, by-the-numbers genre fiction.

You are absolutely welcome, of course, to write those books! If you know, or even suspect, that your soul, your credit card balance, or your tenure review committee demand that you create such novels, then all I can tell you is that you must sit down and get typing. I will cheer you on.

However, that's not what I'm teaching here.

I believe (and maybe you'll think I'm crazy) that there is a golden "high road" of literature, and that it encompasses great, fun, and moving novels from all styles, approaches, and genres.

To me, Jane Austen has more in common with a "popular" novel like Gone Girl than she does a cruel and tedious literary work like Gravity's Rainbow

I teach the same plot devices in the classic novel The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton) and Killing Floor (Lee Child) —  the first Jack Reacher novel.

This is not to say that James Baldwin offers the exact same reading pleasures as Liu's The Three Body Problem. Just that they are on the same road.

This is not to say that, if you want to write a quiet, introspective family novel, you need to start copying a sword and sorcery epic like Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings. That would probably be a mistake, in fact. But you should assume that there is a high road of good writing, and that Sanderson's approach might well be valuable to you.

This is how I teach. 

okay. What's My next step?

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Allison Saft

Author of Down Comes the Night (forthcoming)

I cannot tell you how much I value and still think about your writing advice and strategies. The book I wrote after we worked together landed me my agents at InkWell, and we sold two YA fantasy novels to Wednesday Books/Macmillan. 

Here's what I would recommend: try out my free course on writing a great short story. It's low-stakes (all you need is an email address) but it's substantial enough for you to pick up a whole series of new techniques. Plus you'll actually get sketching out a completely new short story. I'll supply the plot twists: you dream up the location and the protagonist. 

Just click the box below:

Write a new story

Let me show you how character first writing can help.

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