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.

One thought on “The Play’s The Thing: How to Let Characters Drive the Story

  1. A lot of what I know about musicals comes from being a theatre goer. You have to care about the characters in order to have the WANT and DESIRE to feel their emotions and to go on their emotions- that is what an emotional connection does. The emotional connection is key to everything.

    The book I am writing now is character-driven. It is home to 13 characters- all serve a key purpose in the story. Sparkle is my protagonist and Sarge is my antagonist. Due to it being a children’s fantasy meant for 8-12 year olds, there is so much I could delve into. Sarge does have a backstory as to why he is the bully that he is. Whenever I think of my book, the first thought are the characters: Sparkle, Misty, Aries, Celeste, Darcy, Felipe, Tweetsie, Sarge, Marge, Effa, Rudy, Claude, and Norg are the characters. Some do have bigger roles then others.

    My blurb of my story: Sparkle, a 12-year-old Fairy Frog, befriends Marge, a 12-year-old toad. Sparkle starts a cycle of friendship with Marge when the two of them decide to see if all the Fairy Frogs can befriend all the toads. What happens when Sarge, Marge’s 17-year-old cousin, tries to break up both friendships?


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