What makes a good story?
It’s an age-old question that has had many answers. Of course, the most obvious answers are good writing, engaging plot, and believable characters.
But I think the trick is to inject character into your plot and soul into your characters.
Character into plot?
Sure. A room has character, furniture has character, why not plot? Merriam-Webster defines character as:
— The way someone thinks, feels, and behaves; someone’s personality; a set of qualities that make a place or thing different from other places or things
Don’t all these things make up a good plot, too? A plot moves along as if it thinks and feels all on its own, has its own personality, and has—if it’s good—characteristics that make it different from other plots.
And what’s this about giving soul to characters?
Everyone writes differently. My stories are more character driven than plot driven. What is the difference? In a plot-driven story, plot is the focal point and the characters are drawn around it. That doesn’t mean the characters aren’t important. They are. But it’s the plot that drives the story forward.
In a character-driven story, the plot serves to tell us the story of the characters: how they think, act, feel in certain situations, and how they evolve—or not—from those situations.
For me, characters rule. And when characters rule, they must have soul. Not the religious, go-to-heaven-to-be-seated-at-the-right-hand-of-the-Father kind of soul, and not even—necessarily—spiritual soul. What I mean is a depth of character and personality, something that distinguishes that person from, say, a paper cut-out. (Laugh with me if you’ve ever seen that episode of Family Guy where Peter find a cardboard cutout of Kathy Ireland and creates a whole relationship with her.)
Characters—particularly main characters—have to appeal to readers on a certain level. They either have to love the MC or hate her, but if they’re indifferent toward her, that’s a problem. If readers don’t get excited about the MC one way or the other, they will not want to invest their time and money. And they will not get excited about her if she’s one-dimensional and has no soul.
So how do you give your characters soul? Make sure she has a history. Did she have family? Who were they? How did they relate? If she didn’t have family, why not? How far did her education go? What did she study? What jobs has she held? Did she grow up poor? Rich? Does she have emotional issues? Has her heart been broken?
These are not questions that you need to answer openly. The reader doesn’t need to know all this stuff. But you, as the writer, should create her history in the background. This will be the tapestry of her life. This will make her real to you and, therefore, to the reader. Once she has dimension and depth, she will be real.
And she will have soul.