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How to set up a character-driven story (the 2 most important steps) 

 May 5, 2023

By  Sue Brown-Moore

When you're writing stories about heroes who become a better version of themselves, your plot must be built around more than the basic Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts. 

The whole point of the story is to show the protagonist making decisions and facing challenges that help them grow as a person. So the plot has to motivate, test, and transform our hero in ways that are personal to them.   

There are two critical early stages in setting up your story before you write a single word (or before you get so far into the draft that you've lost your way).

Stage 1: Root Fear (in building a character-driven fiction story)

The first stage of setting up a character-driven story

Before we can create a story that will resonate with readers and evoke vivid emotions, we first have to understand exactly what that story is about. Which sounds easy.

If you already have a story idea, then you surely must know what it's about... right?

If you're writing a plot-driven story, yes. But you can't write character-driven stories with the same mindset. So let's test your current work-in-progress to see if it's on the right track.

What is the first thing you think about when you picture your hero's journey?

If you just thought of a string of events rather than feelings, you may already be headed for a rewrite.

We need to understand who our hero is at the start of their journey + who they will become by its end.

The first stage of setting up your story is identifying your hero's Root Fear. Root Fear is one of the seven Character Core Values that define the framework of the hero's journey. Here's a high-level peek at the 7 Core Values:

Root Fear is the most powerful character trait in a story

From the chart above, you can see how each of the Core Values flows into and from one another. Sometimes they cross over even more than this, but to keep things simple for now, we'll just focus on identifying the Root Fear itself.

So how do we figure out our hero's Root Fear? 

Root Fear is all about emotion

When most people think about what they're afraid of, they list things or events. Like heights, spiders, failure, and death. 

But those are all actually Surface Fears. Think of Surface Fears as symptoms of true fears, like a cough is a symptom of a cold. (Notice how, in the flowchart above, the Surface Fear core value is listed on the bottom row.) 

It's much easier for us to picture specific moments that we want to avoid than the big emotional experiences that inspire those avoidances. 

Root Fear vs Surface Fear: Ghostly shadow

Click the ghostly pic above to read more about Root vs Surface Fear.

For example, if you fear death, what about death scares you the most? Losing permanent control over your choices? No longer being able to make a difference? Having to experience a situation you can't prepare for?

If you're afraid of spiders, is it because you don't want to get bitten and risk a nasty infection? Or do you want to avoid the creepy-crawly sensation of dozens of little legs swarming over your skin? What emotions would either of those circumstances make you feel?

The guiding thread of the hero's story is their recognizing and facing (and maybe even outright overcoming) their avoidance of an emotional state or experience.

If you're still not quite sure how to figure out your hero's Root Fear, click the button below to read an article that explains Root Fear in more depth using 2 different hero examples that showcase how one Surface Fear can represent multiple Root Fears, depending on what happened in the hero's backstory.  

Once you know your hero's Root Fear, you can set up the framework for a story that will empower that hero to become a better person by harnessing the nuances of their specific fear.

Stage 2: Key Moments (in building a character-driven fiction story)

The second stage of setting up a character-driven story

Great! Now we know the most important character core value of our hero. But how does that help us create a sturdy story framework to draft our manuscript around?

Your hero's life will be segmented into two distinct phases: before the fear and after. 

At the beginning of the story, your hero makes decisions that enable them to avoid experiencing the emotional state they fear.  

Or, more specifically, before the transformation and after. Some fears can't be completely conquered, and that's okay. The point of facing the fear is not necessarily to overcome it, but rather for the hero to recognize why they're so resistant to experiencing that specific thing and choose to stop letting it limit their choices. 

Acting on that conscious decision is what defines "personal growth", the climax of the hero's transformation.

At the end of the story, your hero makes decisions regardless of their fear, now willing to experience the pain that living so freely risks.  

Your plot elements—the key scenes that define the hero's journey—should be set up to facilitate this transition between "before the fear" and "after the fear". And there are two specific decision-making moments every character-driven story needs to show the hero facing and reacting to.

Personal transformation is all about decisions

The two key moments that your hero needs to face in their story arc represent their "before" and "after" mindsets about their Root Fear. 

Somewhere near the beginning of the story—usually in the first third—your hero should be given an opportunity to face their fear. And they're going to turn it down.

You need to set up a scenario that forces your hero to make a decision that is somehow related to the emotional experience they fear most... even if the hero themself does not yet realize exactly what that fear is. (Sometimes we start out knowing exactly what we're afraid of, and sometimes we figure it out along the way.) I call this story moment The Opportunity.

The Opportunity is an avoidance moment in the early story that offers the hero the chance to do something scary... but they're not yet ready and refuse that path.

Plot-wise, there are three parts to The Opportunity: 

  1. 1
    The scenario that sets up the decision (the Opportunity Circumstance)
  2. 2
    The choice the hero makes in response to the new Circumstance (the Opportunity Decision)
  3. 3
    The actions the hero takes after making the Decision that reinforce their dedication to that flawed path

In my masterclass workshop The Story Snapshot Method, I use Margaret Tate (Sandra Bullock's character) from the 2009 movie the Proposal as my example hero.

The Story Snapshot Method workbook on a desktop

Her Opportunity Circumstance is when she finds out that her US work visa has been revoked. In that moment, Margaret must choose whether to accept being deported and face her Root Fear of abandonment.

Instead, she chooses to extort her American assistant into marrying her (to get a spouse green card)—her Opportunity Decision—rather than start over in her home country of Canada. 

And then she acts on that decision by fully buying into the fiancée deception with Andrew.

The Opportunity is the plot moment that sets up the entire middle part of the story. That middle section is where you show your hero experiencing how painful their life has become because of their decision, then layer in glimpses of how happy they could be if they stopped avoiding their fear. 

This middle section of the story (including the early-story "actions" in my list above) looks different for every genre—this is where you need to study your genre's specific story beats—but it should ultimately prepare your hero to make the decision that will change the trajectory of their life in some significant way. Only then are they ready to face their Turning Point. 

The Turning Point is an action moment in the late story that empowers the hero to choose happiness in spite of their fear by facing its consequences directly.

Like The Opportunity, the Turning Point also has three parts...

  1. 1
    The scenario that puts the hero at a decision crossroad (the Turning Point Circumstance)
  2. 2
    The choice the hero makes that reflects their new mindset about their Root Fear (the Turning Point Decision)
  3. 3
    The actions the hero takes that prove they are dedicated to their new way of thinking

...but this final moment of choice usually happens in the last third of the story (if you're writing in a 3-act structure). 

In my Story Snapshot example from above, Margaret's Turning Point Decision happens in the scene where she's at the altar with Andrew in front of all their friends and family (and the immigration officer who is determined to bust them for fraud). 

She chooses to admit that she forced Andrew into the deception, even though she knows she'll be sent back to Canada and have to start her life over, completely alone.

The time she spent with his family during the middle part of the movie showed her how good it felt to be loved, and she realizes she'd rather be alone than emotionless.  

By the Turning Point of the story, the hero has evolved in such a complete way that they can no longer behave the way their early-story self did. Were they given the exact same Opportunity now, they would choose a different path than they did at the start of their growth arc. You may have also heard this story moment referred to as The Point of No Return.

In my online course Liar, Liar, Plot on Fire I explain why the Turning Point is indeed a point of no return by using a caterpillar as an example of an irreversible transformation. 

The 3-Part Sturdy Story Framework (in building a character-driven fiction story)

Your 3-part sturdy story framework

Next time you start drafting a story, give yourself a little room to think about who your hero is at the start of their story and who they will become by its end. Then use those endpoints to set up a very basic story framework that you can can use to plot, outline, or pants your scenes.

It's okay if you don't know exactly what will happen whenAll you need to know to confidently get some words on the page are these three story elements: 

  • Identify the hero's Root Fear
  • Challenge that fear with an Opportunity moment that the hero will reject and continue avoiding their fear
  • Offer the hero a final Turning Point moment, where they will face their fear and begin making decisions that give them a chance at happiness, regardless of risking that fear

You can use this same setup technique to analyze a story you've already written. In my Liar, Liar, Plot on Fire course, I step you through using the hero's Root Fear to discover 5 potential critical problems in your story, so you can get the absolute most out of your developmental edits and delight your readers. 


Comments & questions

Did this article help simplify how you approach story planning? What do you need more clarification on? What moments stood out as "AHA!" or "Oooh!" for you? Drop me a comment below and let me know. <3

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About the author 

Sue Brown-Moore

Creator. Speaker. Feminist. Human. (She/her)

Known for being a tough editor with a soft touch, Sue Brown-Moore specializes in teaching revision techniques for character-driven fiction and champions progressive, inclusive literature. Sue helps writers rediscover their inner spark and push through vexing story problems using the character-first editing and storystorming techniques she teaches in her online university.

Sue has been featured in writing-focused events and publications, like Publisher’s Weekly and online writing summits, and the stories she collaborates on as both a freelance and acquiring editor have been celebrated with nominations and wins for industry awards like the Vivian, the Golden Heart, and the Lambda.

Learn more about learning from Sue and choose the confidence-building workshop, playbook, or bite-sized training that’s right for you, here on Sue's website.

You only get one chance to make a memorable first impression, so make it count!

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