Friday 7 July 2017

Who Is Driving Your Story?

By Em Lynas

When I first started writing I was under the impression that the protagonist was in the driving seat and I wrote mainly from that POV. I thought that they wanted/needed something and everyone else was pretty much there to either help or get in the way. That their story was the most important story in the book.

I've learned better. After all it's the wants/needs of each of the other characters that establish the big world and small world scenarios thus creating a space for the protagonist's story.

A protagonist has nothing to fight against or engage with if the other characters don't act on their desires.


For instance, In the soon to be published (Yay!) You Can't Make Me Go To Witch School! (By me!) Daisy is destined to be a Shakespearean actress. Nothing and no one is there to stop her. She will perform her Bottom, get another part, then another part, learn her craft and eventually grab the Oscar and make a tearful speech about all the help she's had. That's the story she's in the diving seat of, and the car is a slow moving sedan going in a straight line.

Pitch that to an agent!

So, another character has to put a spanner in the works, take the wheel, and send the car down a bypass.

Introducing - Granny Wart.

She dumps Daisy at Toadspit Towers School for Witches. Putting an end to Daisy's dreams of stardom. But why would she? Granny has to have her reasons. She has to be motivated by something. Love, desire, hate, selfishness, greed, etc. She needs a backstory that impels her to leave Daisy at school and then, Ms Sage, the deputy headmistress, needs a backstory which impels her to keep Daisy at school. Which means Daisy is then impelled to fight against them both.

The motivations and desires of others pushes the protagonist into their story. 

In Harry Potter, Mr Dursley prevents Harry from receiving his Hogwarts letter. His motivation is driven by a strong dislike of magic and magical people, and a refusal to allow Harry to engage in that sort of abnormal behaviour. So when Harry meets Hagrid, he has no desire to stay with the Dursley's and enters Hogwarts.

A beautifully illustrated version from Chris Riddell

In Francis Hardinge's The Lie Tree it's Faith's father's abnormal behaviour that triggers her actions through the book. I don't want to give any spoilers but it would be a book about a boring archaeological dig if he didn't have a secret to hide, giving her a secret to uncover. I loved it.

In Hamish and the World Stoppers by Danny Wallace, illustrated by the uber-talented Jamie Littler (who just happens to be my illustrator too) something is making the world stop. If it wasn't, then Hamish's dad would not have gone missing and Hamish wouldn't have a mystery to solve. Who or what is that something and what's their motivation for doing it?

In Anne of Green Gables by L. M Montgomery Marilla and Matthew are motivated to adopt a boy who can help on the farm because of Matthew's heart problem and they end up with Anne. The complication being she's a girl not a boy and so, because she doesn't fit their original motivation, they reject her. So she has to fight to stay.

In the excellent Netflix series Anne with an E Matthew and Marilla's backstories are given room and we see why they react to Anne in the way they do. We see what they lost and how much they gain by having Anne in their lives. Personally, I think the story is deeper for that. Purists may not agree.

I've filled in lots of character creation sheets in the past but they often focus on the superficial e.g. what they look like, what they're wearing etc. Please do share if you have any links to character creation sheets based on discovering motivations and personalities.

Meanwhile I'm asking these questions about all of the characters in my books.

How did they get to be the person they are at this moment in time?

What went right/wrong for them?

What do they want in the future? For themselves, the protagonist and the other characters?

What motivates them - status, money, value, safety, learning etc

Why don't they want the protagonist to get what the protagonist wants?

Feel free to add to these questions too.

This might make an interesting starting point for future books - Don't begin with the protagonist. Begin with the world of the antagonist and secondary characters. Then drop someone else in who doesn't want what they want.

The book that immediately springs to mind here is Pollyanna by E. H. Porter

The world of grumpy people is firmly established, each with their own reason for being grumpy, and then Pollyanna is dropped into it like a pebble in a pond. She could never have spiralled down into unhappiness if the other characters' actions hadn't been motivated by severe grumpiness.

So, who is driving your story?

by Em Lynas

Currently residing on twitter as @emlynas and fb as Maureen Lynas
Published by Nosy Crow. Represented by Skylark Literary.


  1. Brilliant! I totally agree that the hero focus in writing courses and books can neglect the characters who build the world.

  2. Good post. I was about to ask whether this 'rule' applied to a journey story - one in which the main character meets many other minor characters along the way. I was wondering whether there's time to go into the back story of people the reader meets only once. And then I realised that yes, there is. There has to be, because their character traits will influence the action. I suppose you just have to be deft about fitting those traits into the story. Sorry to go on for so long - but this was a REALLY helpful piece. Thank you.

    1. I'm so pleased I got you thinking! You don't necessarily have to reference the backstory in the text but you need to know it and the trait can hint at it e.g. Ms Thorn is all about complience and order. She has a witchwood leg and she says 'I never make mistakes,' but she has a witchwood leg so she has made a mistake. I like to leave a gap like that for the reader. Hope that makes sense.

  3. Great advice and I totally agree. It's the way I'm tackling my own novel. Thanks for sharing.


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