In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven.
There’s so much to think about before you begin a new short story or novel.
You have to think about the genre you’re writing in. Reader expectations of that genre. The length you’re going to be aiming for. What ultimately the story is about. Who your characters are. What your characters want. How the story begins. How the story ends. What might happen in the middle.
There’s so, so much.
And yet something you should never forget is that the best stories truly are the ones that are character-driven.
Now this is not to say that you should avoid telling a compelling story with high stakes and lots of tension and only focus on your character as he or she goes through the day. Just go on and on about your protagonist without tossing him or her into a compelling story.
What character-driven means, at least for me, is that the characters take control of the narrative. There’s not the sense that the author is playing God and just stringing along the characters, whether they’re one-dimensional or three-dimensional, from one destination to the next.
The story is exciting and surprising and suspenseful, and it certainly plays a major part in drawing us in, but at the end of the day, it’s the characters of the story that pull everything together, that make it work beautifully and gets you to keep reading all the way to the end.
You can write a superbly detailed, endlessly dramatic horror novel about the end of the world.
But if you don’t care about any of the characters? If they can all die by the end of the next chapter and you wouldn’t care even a little?
Your story will fail if your reader doesn’t care enough about the characters.
It doesn’t matter how well-written it is. It doesn’t matter how compelling the subject matter, the major conflict, and on and on.
The story can come first, when you’re thinking about what you want to write. But once you have your captivating premise, then you need to put much of your focus on your characters.
If you get your readers on board with your protagonist and other major characters, then you have the makings of a great story.
If by the end of chapter one, the reader is invested in that main character, and wants him or her to succeed, that reader will follow you anywhere. As long as you keep the story progressing at a reasonable rate and offer lots of tension and drama along the way, you’re well on your way.
Again, don’t only focus on your characters. Don’t forget about your story, and your pacing, and your themes, and your language. All of these things are necessary for an outstanding short story or novel.
But your characters should be at the top of your list of importance. The main characters, and the side characters. The protagonist and the antagonist.
Pay attention to your characters, make them honest and authentic, and wrap a compelling story around them and not the other way around.
Yes, make your story character-driven from beginning to end.
And you will find success in your writing life time and time again!