Taking the Wheel: What is a Character Driven Story?

Nisha Tuli
April 20, 2023

Remember  the last book you read where you couldn’t stop thinking about the characters? They felt real and three-dimensional, with fully developed personalities, and their actions made sense. Or if they didn’t, then you knew why they didn’t. Chances are you were reading a character-driven story.

You might have heard this term before, but it’s one of those things that is sort of hard to define in concrete terms. But today, we’re going to try and do just that. 

In this article, we’ll talk about about:

  • What is a character-driven story
  • The benefits of character-driven stories
  • Creating characters with depth and complexity
  • Genre and character-driven stories
  • Examples of famous character-driven novels

What is a Character-Driven Story?

A character-driven story places the primary focus on the characters' internal struggles, motivations, and personal growth, with the plot often being secondary to the development of the characters. The characters' actions and motivations are shaped by their unique personalities, values, and desires.

Obviously, the key to a good character-driven story is creating well-rounded and relatable characters your readers identify with and invest in emotionally. Your characters need to be complex, with both strengths, weaknesses, flaws, and fears, and their actions need to be consistent with their personalities and their motivations.

One of the defining features of a character-driven story is the use of introspection and inner dialogue to explore your characters' thoughts and feelings. This means you’ll need to get in their heads. Internal monologues offer insight into the characters' perspectives and how they’re affected by events in the story. 

Character-driven stories can take many forms and be set in any genre.One story might be a romance novel that explores the growth and evolution of the relationship between two people. Another could be a mystery novel where the protagonist's inner struggles and motivations play a central role in solving the case. 

Regardless of the specific genre or plot, character-driven stories are often more focused on the journey than the destination. While the events of the story may be important, it is the characters' reactions to these events that truly drive the narrative forward.

Benefits of Writing a Character-driven Story

Character-driven stories focus on the internal struggles and growth of the characters, which can lead to deeper emotional connections between your reader and your characters. 

Emotional Engagement

One of the primary benefits of writing a character-driven story is the potential for deep emotional engagement. By focusing on internal struggles and growth, you can create relatable, complex characters your readers will care about, meaning they’ll be totally invested in your story. 

More Room for Character Development

Character-driven stories often allow for more room for character development, as the plot is often secondary to the characters themselves. This can give writers the opportunity to explore their characters' thoughts, emotions, and personal growth in greater detail. 

Creative Freedom

Sometimes, you get a little more wiggle room when it comes to the plot and structure in a character-driven story. Because it’s more about the characters, you can make use of different style and plot structures and it’s less likely to detract from the book’s central focus. Since point A doesn’t rely as much on getting to point B before you get to point C, you get some more room to experiment. 

Creating Characters with Depth and Complexity

If you’re going to write a character-driven book, you obviously need some pretty interesting characters. Ones that grow and change, otherwise you’re going to have a real snoozer on your hands. Here are some things to keep in mind when creating your characters. 

Internal Conflict and Growth

The name of the game is internal conflict and growth. This means your characters must face obstacles and challenges that make them question their beliefs and values. This is how you make them grow and change as people, thereby driving your story forward. For more on how write conflict, click on this link.

Dialogue and Inner Monologue

All stories need dialogue, but character-driven stories are also all about the inner workings of your character’s mind. By showing the thoughts and emotions through inner monologue, you can bring the reader into the story and into your character’s head. This helps establish your character and move the story forward. It can also create a deeper understanding of the characters and their motivations.

Plot as a Consequence of Character

One of the main differences in a character- versus plot-driven story is the plot should be a consequence of the characters' actions and motivations. The characters should drive the plot, rather than the other way around. Another way to look at this is the concept of agency. Your characters should be making the story happen rather than having the story happen to them. 

Themes and Meaning

Finally, a character-driven story should have themes and meaning that extend beyond the plot and characters. These themes can explore universal human experiences, such as love, loss, and redemption. They’ll provide extra insight into the human condition and make your characters more vivid in your reader’s mind.

If you need some more help on developing your characters, check out some of these resources:

Genres and Character Driven Stories

As we said above, character-driven stories can happen in any genre. But there are some that are particularly suited to them. 


Romance is all about relationships and, as such, is often heavily character-driven. The story revolves around the protagonists and their emotional journey as they fall in love, face obstacles, and ultimately come together. In a romance novel, the characters' personalities, motivations, and emotions are front and center, driving the plot forward to create  the story.

Literary Fiction

Literary fiction focuses on character development and exploring the human condition. It often deals with complex themes such as identity, family, and society, and the characters are usually flawed and struggle with personal issues. The plot in literary fiction is secondary to the characters' emotional journey, and the story is driven by the characters' inner conflicts and personal growth.

Science Fiction/Fantasy

Science fiction and fantasy allow you to explore complex worlds and alternate realities. However, even in these genres, character development is key to creating a compelling story. The characters must be well-developed and relatable, and their emotional journeys must be tied to the worldbuilding and plot. In science fiction and fantasy, the characters' personalities and motivations are often shaped by the world they inhabit, adding a unique layer of complexity to the storytelling.


Mystery and thriller novels are often plot-driven, but strong character development is still crucial to the success of the story. Here, the characters must be well-rounded and believable, with their own motivations and secrets that may be revealed throughout the story. The plot is often driven by the characters' actions and decisions, and your reader's investment in the story is often tied to their emotional connection with the characters.

Historical Fiction

Historical fiction is storytelling with real-world historical events, and character development is essential to creating a believable and engaging story. The characters must be authentic to the time period and setting, and their emotional journeys must be tied to the historical events unfolding around them. Historical fiction offers a unique opportunity to explore complex themes such as war, politics, and social change through the eyes of your characters.

Examples of Character-Driven Stories

You might be wondering what character-driven stories you’re familiar with. Here are a few:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee - A classic coming-of-age story that explores themes of race, morality, and social inequality through the eyes of young Scout Finch.
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen - A timeless romance that revolves around the witty and headstrong Elizabeth Bennet as she navigates the world of love and social conventions in 19th century England.
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger - This literary classic follows the rebellious teenager Holden Caulfield as he grapples with growing up, identity, and the pressures of conformity.
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins - A psychological thriller that explores the twisted and unreliable psyche of its protagonist, Rachel Watson, as she becomes entangled in a web of lies and murder.
  • The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood - In this dystopian novel, we follow the harrowing journey of Offred, a woman living in a totalitarian regime where women are reduced to reproductive vessels, as she struggles to maintain her sense of identity and resist oppression.
  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini - This powerful tale of friendship and redemption follows the life of Amir, a wealthy Afghan boy, and his relationship with his childhood friend Hassan, set against the backdrop of the Taliban's rise to power.
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn - A thriller that explores the dark and complex relationship between its two protagonists, Nick and Amy Dunne, as they navigate deception, betrayal, and murder.
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison - A literary novel that explores the legacy of slavery through the eyes of its protagonist, Sethe, as she grapples with the trauma of her past and confronts the ghost of her dead daughter.
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy - This post-apocalyptic tale follows the journey of a father and son as they navigate a desolate and dangerous landscape, facing challenges both external and internal.
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green - This YA favorite explores love, life, and mortality through the eyes of two teenagers, Hazel and Augustus, as they battle cancer and find hope in each other.

Now that you’ve got a clear sense of what makes for a great character-driven story, you can start considering how you want to write your next book. Will you focus on your characters and their development and allow them to drive the story? 

If you found this article helpful, be sure to check out Dabble U where we’re sharing new ones every week to help level up your writing. 

Nisha Tuli

Nisha J Tuli is a YA and adult fantasy and romance author who specializes in glitter-strewn settings and angst-filled kissing scenes. Give her a feisty heroine, a windswept castle, and a dash of true love and she’ll be lost in the pages forever. When Nisha isn’t writing, it’s probably because one of her two kids needs something (but she loves them anyway). After they’re finally asleep, she can be found curled up with her Kobo or knitting sweaters and scarves, perfect for surviving a Canadian winter.