The Play’s The Thing: How to Let Characters Drive the Story

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.

-William Shakespeare

I have heard a lot of conflicting writing advice in my years. But one big conflict that I’m still having trouble getting over is the issue of plot versus character. In the past, I was very character-driven. However, in trying to fix myself, I have now leaned way too hard on plot and keep getting feedback about my characters feeling more like chess pieces.

So how the heck do you resolve this issue? When a character takes over the story, the plot basically becomes like a black hole, revolving all around them and dragging everything else along with it. When the plot is driving the story, the characters feel boring.

As William Shakespeare said in Hamlet, “The play’s the thing.”

I used to do theater in high school and college. Even though I don’t have a lot of theater experience, I still learned a lot from memorizing monologues and acting out scenes in class. When you’re acting you (quoting Lizzie Bennet Diaries here) “open yourself up to inhabiting another person or letting another person inhabit you.” Actors put a lot of thought into embodying the character they play, no matter how small the role may be.

Emotion is really the driving force behind a good story. The reason why a majority of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have worked is because there are always emotional stakes behind all the action scenes. We care for the characters. The same applies to My Hero Academia. It’s a series with a perfect balance of plot/action and character-driven moments and you slowly start to see the characters develop in between all the fights or even as the action is happening.

Basically, creating a novel is basically like putting on a one-man show where you play all the characters at once. No matter how crazy it may seem, every character you create is a part of you. Some characters will feel more like you than others, but every character comes from something inside you, even if it’s the worst part of you.

What does that all mean when it comes to plotting a story?

Plot is created by decisions the characters make and the consequences that result from those actions. You might have the characters react to things at first, but there needs to be a point where the characters take initiative.

How the heck can we figure out how to make sure our characters drive the story without getting lost?

Aside from taking an acting class, I recommend looking into musicals and studying Shakespeare plays. The most memorable musicals have character-driven moments that still move the plot along. I think of musicals like Hamilton, WickedThe Great Comet of 1812, and even the Heathers musical. Check out this essay as to why:


I hope that you take some time to get in touch with your inner actor.

Friday With a Friend!

Today, my friend Mariella Hunt. Catholic writer and editor, gives tips on how to better yourself through writing. 

In a recent edition of the Paris Review, there is an interview with author Emmanuel Carrere in which he mentions a writing exercise introduced by another author, Ludwig Borne.

The exercise goes as follows: Write for three successive days without restraint or hypocrisy. Write what comes to your mind, no matter what it is. Write what you’re feeling and keep going, keep on going, without interruption, just write.

By the end of this exercise, you will have started on the path to becoming an original writer, because you’ve written what was in your heart and not according to an outline or plan.

If you were to take up this challenge, what do you think would fill the pages of your journal? Would old monsters of your past read their heads up to devour you? Would you meet old friends or even a side of yourself you didn’t know existed?

At some point in the year 2014 I am going to try this exercise and see what my mind comes up with. I think it would be healthy for all writers to give this a shot. You might be surprised by what lies in your head forgotten over the years.

If you try it, good luck! You might write a best seller!


Mariella Hunt is 20 years old and writes Young Adult Fiction. She blogs about her Catholic faith and fascination with art. Home is the Treasure Valley, but she dreams of seeing the world. Find her on Vimeo.

She is self-publishing her first novel, Dissonance, on 12/14/14.