Whose Story is This?

Every story is someone’s story. Whether we are writing about war, child abuse, romance, murder, or any other topic, we must make readers care about a character. Readers want someone to root for, to bond with, to love. Once they have found that, they will be eager to read further.

One of the hardest things for us new writers is to decide whose story we are writing. We create a lot of characters while writing our novels, and we fall in love with all of them, even the villains. We feel disloyal to our creations if we give one character more consideration than others, and we believe the story needs all those points of view. Perhaps it does. But the reader doesn’t know that. All the reader knows is what is on the page, not what is in our minds, and all those equally significant characters become confusing. Readers need to know whose story it is. Or whose story it mostly is.

One way for us to decide this is to figure out which character has the most at stake, which one will change the most. If we are lucky, the two will be the same, and we will know whose story it is. If not, we have to make the character who will change the most into the main story character while upping that character’s stakes.

A character with nothing to lose is not one people will care about. If someone in the story parachutes out of a plane for fun, readers might find it entertaining, but they won’t be concerned. But if someone wearing a faulty parachute jumps out of a plane into flames to save a child lost in the middle of a forest fire, everyone except the most curmudgeonly will care.

The same is true of character growth. A character who remains static, who learns nothing from experience, is not someone readers can love. A story is always about change, and since a story is also about a character, that character must grow. A timid character must learn to stand up for himself. An arrogant character must learn a touch of humility. The essence of the character does not need to change. A timid reporter who turns into superman is the stuff of comic books, not a realistic novel. But a character who grows, who learns, who comes back from his or her experiences with something to share, that is a character readers care about.

And that’s whose story it is.  

4 Responses to “Whose Story is This?”

  1. suzannefrancis Says:

    I look at characterization as free therapy. I put something of myself in every character I create. Other people who have touched my life over the years, both positively and negatively, are also ruthlessly exploited. It gives me a chance to rewrite my own personal history.

    My favorite theme in character development is redemption, for the moment, anyway. How to make the bad guy human–give him feelings–give him a soul…

    I love it when someone who has read my books says to me “I can never tell who is good and who is bad! Everyone changes…”

    That is what I am after.


  2. Bertram Says:

    I think one of the most interesting comments about characterization I ever came across was that the villain is the hero in his or her own story. It gave me a clearer idea of what characterization is all about. In a story, it doesn’t matter who’s good or who’s bad, merely who changes.

    Incidentally, I read on your blog that you have a four book deal. Congratulations!

  3. suzannefrancis Says:

    No advance though. Tee hee.

    The villain is the hero in his or her own story. I love that! Can you remember where you came across it? I am totally going to steal it…


  4. Bertram Says:

    It’s mine, a take on a comment from The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler: Everyone is a hero in their own story.

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