Tuesday, February 4

What Kind of Writer Are You? Dramatic Action versus Character Development

What Kind of Writer Are You? Dramatic Action versus Character Development

Character Driven versus Action Driven Stories

I love stories driven by dramatic action. Stories like Indiana Jones, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and Paranormal Activity. Yes, sure, I can appreciate other kinds of stories, stories driven by the emotions of the characters, stories driven by their loves and desires and fears and regrets. But given a choice between Die Hard (the first one) and The Notebook, I'll take Die Hard.

I stand by what I've just said but there's another way of looking at this. Stories like Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, stories that are driven by plot and action, tend to focus on the protagonist's external goal and feature his attempts to attain this goal. Sometimes these heroes (the first Indy movie is a good example) don't even have an internal goal. 

On the other hand, stories like The Notebook focus on a characters' emotions, their loves and hates and fears. These kind of stories, stories fuelled by character development, tend to focus on the protagonist's internal goal and feature their internal transformations.

I think most movies--arguably the 1999 remake of The Mummy falls into this category--are a blend of dramatic action and character development, of the protagonist striving to attain both internal and external goals.

Two Kinds of Writers

There seem to be, broadly speaking, two different kinds of writers to go along with these two different kinds of stories: stories top heavy with action or top heavy with character development. Although, that said, many, perhaps most, stories are a mix of the two styles.

Speaking as someone who gravitates more towards an action style I can appreciate I might need to force myself to slow down occasionally and do a bit more character development, and I can easily imagine that writers who like to writes stories chalk full of their characters' emotional development--of fictional people pursuing their internal goals--occasionally need to remind themselves to throw in a bit of dramatic action to spice things up. 

(Keep in mind that dramatic action tends to increase the pace of a story while exploring a character's emotions, their internal goals and growth, tends to slow the pace of a story. I will say more about this, and about scenes and sequels, in the second and last part of this series.)

Knowing what one's preferences are (as both a reader and a writer) may teach one something about the kind of strengths and, possibly, weaknesses evident in one's writing.

The problem: Not everyone knows what kind of writer they are, whether they favor outward goals and dramatic action or internal goals and character development.

The Test: How To Tell Which Type You Are

I got this idea from the article Character-Driven or Action Driven by Martha Alderson.

I've found that in order to change one first needs to understand oneself, to understand the problem. In this case that means finding out which kind of writer you are. Are you someone who prefers to fill your stories with dramatic action? Are you someone who prefers to showcase your character's emotional development? Or, perhaps, your stories balance perfectly in the middle.

Think of your protagonist for your work in progress. (Alderson describes a protagonist--and I think this is an excellent definition--as "the character who is most changed by the dramatic action"). That said, I think this test can work for any character.

Try to answer these questions as quickly as you can:

Dramatic Action

1. What is your protagonist's overall, external, story goal?

What is the thing they desire most? In concrete terms, how can they fulfill that desire? 

For instance, a character--Tia--might desire great wealth. That's fine, but that isn't specific enough, it's not concrete enough to be a goal. Robbing the bank on 1st and 3rd during July 4th is a goal.

2. What is preventing your character from achieving this goal?

What external force opposes the character achieving what they desire? 

Continuing my example, perhaps a detective has his eye on Tia. He suspects her of planning a big heist and has sworn to catch her in the act and put her in jail--or worse.

3. What are the stakes? What will this character lose if she fails? What will she win if she succeeds?

Perhaps Tia needs the money to pay for her sister's operation. If her sister doesn't get the operation she'll die, forcing her foster children back into a cold, uncaring, system. If Tia does get the money the sister will live and continue to provide a loving home for her foster kids. 

Or perhaps Tia's grandmother is close to losing her house to the bank and she can't bear for that to happen; her grandmother took care of Tia her entire life, now it's time for her to take care of grams. In this case the stakes would be: if Tia fails grandma loses the house her husband built and has to move in to a Dickensian old-folks home. If Tia wins grams gets to keep her house and will die a happy woman surrounded by the memories of a long happy life. 

Character Emotional Development

That's enough for this post. Next time I'll go over questions that will focus on a character's emotional development. Then you can ask yourself: which set of questions were easier to answer? That may indicate which kind of story you find easiest to write.

Update: You can read the second and final part of this series here: What Kind of Writer Are You? Part Two of Two.

Good writing!

Photo credit: "High-Octane Villain" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

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