Pointers from the Pros: Anna DeStefano on the Character-Driven Story

Pointers from the Pros” gives tips from authors and publishing industry professionals on everything from craft to querying to their experiences on the road to publication.  This post is by guest columnist and SWO member J.M. Lacey.

I attended the August 2010 Scribblers’ Retreat Writers’ Conference in St. Simons Island, Ga., which featured a stellar set of professional speakers.

Anna DeStefano, a nationally bestselling and multiple award-winning author of classic romance for Harlequin and Silhouette and contemporary paranormal romantic suspense for Dorchester Publishing, spoke on Saturday.

Here are some key points from her program on “The Character-Driven Story”:

  • Character comes first, then the plot. Why? Readers have to connect with your characters through emotion. True storytellers will make the reader care about the character rather than the situations the character finds him/herself in.
  • Agents and publishers need to connect emotionally with your story. If they can’t connect with your characters—ergo your story—they will pass on your manuscript.

  • Really understand your character in the planning process. Story and character are the same thing. Every time an event changes in your story, the character has to change. Create experiences through your character for the reader instead of telling the reader what the character is actually doing.
  • In the planning stages, start with your Inciting Incident. This happens early, where the character is drawn into and committed to the story—whether it’s a problem, obstacle or tragedy.
  • Next, map out your Black Moment. For example, is the character still struggling with the same thing at the end? This is the emotional dynamic, the lesson.
  • Finally, create the backstory that will take your plot to a new level. Developing the character’s backstory and past will help you move forward in the creation process, but this doesn’t mean to reveal the character’s past to your reader. This will come out in your character’s experiences (see point three). Get the character from the inciting incident to the black moment.

  • Put some thought into why the characters in your story are doing what they are doing, before they do it. Understand your characters as well as, if not better than, your plot.
  • Figure out the emotional conflict from the beginning of the story. At mid-point, throw in more obstacles. At the end, the character needs to make a decision.

  • Make every scene count. In each scene, your character should have a motive, goal and conflict. Otherwise, you are wasting space. The conflict should escalate. Create tension to drive the reader to know more about the conflict.

DeStefano concluded by prompting the audience to think about the difficulty in changing our plot if a publisher asked us to do so. If we have developed strong characters that we know well, changing plot shouldn’t be an enormous challenge.


Character is plot, and plot is character.

J.M. Lacey is a freelance writer and marketing and PR consultant. She is working on a character-driven novel. Visit her Web site and blog.