Story Through Character

Story through character in Scarab 2
Story through character in Scarab 2

Story through Character. But what comes first, character or story? Does story create the character, or character create the story? This perennial chicken-or-the-egg question has many supporters on either side. The topic has serious implications for the way we approach writing a novel or screenplay.

One of the dangers facing an inexperienced writer crafting what he considers to be a thrilling action-packed story is that he may loose sight of writing story through character. One big event slams into another, and before he knows it, he’s written a story which uses characters like puppets in the hands of a novice puppeteer – their movement is trite, abrupt, and artificial.

So how do we avoid this without sacrificing pace and excitement in the stories we tell, or, without weighing down our thinking with reams of character traits and back-story?

The simplest and most unobtrusive way to do so, I’ve found, is to take the central thought/philosophy/emotion of a character and keep it foremost in mind when writing the scenes.

In my science-fiction novel, Scarab II, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler is drawn into a rerun of the cataclysmic events that unfolded in the North West Province of South Africa some five years previously.

In Scarab 1, Jack is swept along by events, forced to react rather than initiate action. But in the follow-up novel, Jack has a better understanding of what lies in store. He is also haunted by what occurred in the past and driven by one overpowering question: can he do anything to prevent the suffering and mayhem that is standard fare in the world today?

This question, born out of a troubled conscience and the knowledge that he may indeed have the power to intervene, motivates most of his underlying thoughts and actions. Understanding this essential aspect of Jack’s character allowed me to write scenes that are powerfully motivated – an important part of fleshing out an inner journey that explains and fuels the outer one.


Identifying the essential preoccupation of each character, and keeping this foremost in mind as you chart the outer journey, allows you to write scenes that are inwardly motivated and stay on track.

2 thoughts on “Story Through Character

  1. Gerhard Pistorius

    What an interesting read. I believe that a effective story must be character driven . In other words if there are no characters there are no stories . However the story can not begin before the character is tossed into parallel. One Author who is considered a master story teller is Jeffrey Archer. Having read the first five books of Archer’s Clifton Chronicles I found myself having such a connection to certain characters I feel the pain when a outside force threatens them so much so that I refuse to read the remaining books. Archer achieves something : We care for the characters as if they are our own children. And like with children the characters are tossed into situations that makes us wish that Aladdin will swoop down and save them . However there are no magic flying carpets in this novel set in war time Europe

    In the first book – Only Time will tell the prologue gives a detailed account of the Main protagonist’s mother and how she had a one night stand with her son’s biological father. The story begins even before the protagonist’s birth. However the protagonist is not tossed in to parallel before his realization that the father he never knew is a highly influential a businessmen who just so happens to be the father of the hero’s best friend and love interest.

    In short : There must be an outside force ( be it an event or act by another character who is not necessarily the antagonist) that takes place before the hero begins his journey. It determines the hero’s call of action. Snow White does not flee into the forest until after the magic mirror declares her the fairest in the land.


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