Planning a Character Driven Project

I am itching with excitement. I am almost done with the first chapter of my draft, and while it needs buckets of edits, I’m excited and in love with my project, and already it reads like something I’d snatch off the shelf.  All because I broke up with outlining and agreed to go steady with Goal, Motivation, Conflict.

Character Driven and Plot Driven

So I won’t get into the argument of pantsing vs plotting, but I think where you stand on the character driven and plot driven  spectrum determines which one calls to you more.  Let’s look at some definitions.

Character Driven focuses on character development, or internal conflict. Who are your characters? What are their flaws?  How do their mistakes compound their problems, raise the stakes, and send them scrambling towards the next problem?  What is the lie your character believes, and how does that lead to most of the conflict, problems and mistakes they make in the book? How do they have to evolve or grow, for the story to end well?

Plot Driven focuses on events, more external conflict. What happens in your book? Why does it happen? How do your characters react to what happens?  What situations, events, or other people cause problems and conflict for your character?

This is a very simple overview, google “character driven vs plot driven” for entire blog posts on this. If you want some reading material, Plot versus Character by Jeff Gerke is a great book if you want a way to work on whichever side you’re weaker on, while cementing your knowledge in the one you’re strong with.

So aren’t you basically saying you’re focusing on internal conflict instead of external?

Again, it’s complicated.  Really, do your own research and see where you fall on the spectrum.  What works for me may not work for you.  Also, I don’t know what I’m doing, but focusing on plotting these internal and external plots has had me dead in the water for my past two projects.  So instead, I’m relying on Goal, Motivation, Conflict.


Goal, Motivation, Conflict

Debra Dixon wrote a book a number of years ago that changed the way some people view character development and narratives. It’s also a killer tool to use when diagnosing problems with your manuscript.

She breaks it down into the 4 W’s: Who, What, Why, and Why Not. Who is your character, What is the character’s goal, Why is the character’s motivation, and Why Not is the conflict, or what gets in the way.  Let’s review a couple.

  • Katniss Everdeen(who) volunteers as tribute for the Hunger Games (what) because her sister is chosen (why), but now she must survive, as there can only be one winner (why not).
  • Clary Fray (who) dives headfirst into the world of monsters (what) because her mother has been kidnapped (why), but since she’s been sheltered, she doesn’t know what to do or who to trust (why not).
  • Dorothy (who) wants to find a place she belongs (what) because she’s always getting into trouble (why) but she winds up in Oz and has to fight to find her way home (why not).

Hunger Games, The Mortal Instruments, and The Wizard of Oz all have a cast of characters with differing goals and motivations.

Katniss has her goals, but she has to struggle with President Snow, Haymitch, Effie, Cinna and Peeta–who all have their own goals and ideas about how to succeed.  And not all of them believe Katniss living is the way to succeed.  Or how she should survive.

Dorothy has the witches, the wizard, and her companions; and Clary has about four different factions and just as many companions pushing her to face her problems in the way they want her to.  But ultimately, Clary, Katniss, and Dorothy have to make their own choices.

For more, review this post by Susan Dennard, it is killer.

So how did this change my chapter?


Chapter 1 – Before & After

So the first…let’s say, five times I tried writing or outlining chapter 1, it looked something like this.

  • Scene 1: Embry starts the book on a hunt with the commander and his trainees.
  • Scene 2: and then Embry has to kill velociraptors.
  • Scene 3: and then Embry wrestles an ankylosaurus.
  • Scene 4: and then Embry ends chapter internally expressing his frustration with anti-saur mentality in the city.

I don’t think I’ve talked about Therefore, But, And Then, and Meanwhile yet, but this outline was exactly what was wrong with my first draft.  Embry found a pterodactyl wing stabbed into his door and then he went to the bar to ask his friends what was going on and then he had a boxing match and then they had a funeral for the unknown pterodactyl and then he sung a weird-ass hymn.  It’s a sequence of events.  That’s not compelling, that’s not a story.

Could I have inserted the buts and therefores in there? Yes.  But it wasn’t written with motivation, it was written with sequences.  And sequences are not narratives.

So, I’ve given Embry an internal and external GMC. He has multiple actually, because this is a draft, and I’m still figuring out the system, but let’s look at my new first chapter.

Embry’s GMC: Embry wants to create a new community in his city where saur and humans co-exist (goal) because he’s sick of watching humans attack, murder, or maim saur out of ignorance or greed (motivation), but as a member of the Armed Forces, he risks losing his job, his home, and his place in the city if he speaks out or tries to make any changes (conflict).

  • Scene 1: Embry and Laramie are rappelling down the side of the wall in order to do a perimeter check. Because there’s a door at ground level and Embry has his own pack of Utahraptors, he argues why they do this the hard way.  Because Laramie is his commander, and his commitment is challenged, Embry lets the issue drop. Conflict: Giant pteranodons attack them as they rappel down the wall. Embry has to kill one, and is angered by the pointlessness of the death.
  • Scene 2: The two men are able to use accelerant to clear most of the unwanted predatory and pest nests near the edges of their city but no fire is permitted within 500 yards of the farmland, and because of that they wind up having to battle off a six pack of velociraptors.
  • Scene 3: They hear a woman’s scream, and run into the woods, finding two people facing off against a pachycephalosaurus, the man with a broken leg because his sister stole the mother’s eggs because they’re starving. Scene ends with him frustrated and needing change.

Now, there’s purpose.  There’s a reason for what he’s doing.  There are antagonistic sources.  His boss wants to do things the hard way because he’s a show off.  He has to wrestle a dino because some idiots thought they could steal their dinner.  He has to fend off living, angry velociraptors, because he can’t set their nests on fire from a distance.  So when the chapter ends with him pissed off about the city’s mentality to kill dinos and scream foul whenever they fight back, the reader can identify a lot more with Embry.

It’s not, you just fucking killed two packs of dinos, wrestled one into submission, and now you’re telling me you love dinos?

I have GMC established for 5 out of my 6 main and secondary characters.  They are all antagonists for each other.  They have similar or even the same goal–but extremely different ways of going about it.  The 6 have one goal where 3 are pro and 3 are con, and the romantic couple is on opposite ends of this decision.

Chapter 2 is going to introduce my second lead, Felicity, and show the political interior of the city.  It’s also going to introduce the domesticated saur, and set up a couple more story factions.  What’s going to happen? I don’t know. I’ll put Felicia into a scene, look at her GMC, turn on my music, and see what happens.

I’m terrified, but it’s working so far.



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