Every time I get started talking about character development and character arc, I find myself moving in perfect circles—coming around again and again to character as the driver of story, of plot, of setting. I believe whole-heartedly that character is what brings in a reader, firmly attaches them to the outcome of the book, and keeps them turning pages. Characters are the reason readers stick around. We fall in love with them, and we want to see what becomes of them. Even in mysteries, where I've always been told Plot is King, I still find that the best mysteries revolve around character—someone you expected least, but who fits the bill in a surprising and exciting way.
How Story Beget Character Beget Story
The way we talk about it, story is the beating heart of a book. Whenever you're stalled on a project, not sure what comes next, perplexed by a novel you've finished but that just doesn't quite work for your beta readers—finding the story, picking out the most compelling thread of all the possible directions a book can go, is usually the answer.
But what makes good story? How do you know which thread is of that most compelling, A-storyline quality?
In my opinion, good stories are always about character in some way. About characters fighting for what they believe in and triumphing; about characters inescapably experiencing friction and conflicting with other characters (father-son and mother-daughter stories do this best); even GRRM's epic fantasy boils down to our favorite characters (Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow) using their natural gifts to overcome obstacles. In great stories, admirable characters butt heads; strong characters are pressed and squeezed and forced into new situations where they can shine or break.
Sit and really think about it: is it the narrative of Game of Thrones that enthralls us, or the characters? Is it the White Walkers that draws you, or bitchy Cersei and fierce Daenerys and the ever-joking Tyrion?
See what I mean about the circle?
Setting: A Character Playground
I had a friend write me a long message the other day about what sort of setting he should choose for his next novel. He had a whole list of things he wanted to explore in the novel, thematic elements he wanted to highlight, and wanted help brainstorming the right setting for them.
If our goal is to find the story—to isolate the place where readers will bond with the book and read all the way to the end—then setting doesn't, in the end, really matter.
Setting can play the part of character, I'll grant you. I always look to Stephen King's 11/22/63 for the best example of setting as character—where the past itself plays a part in the story. But that's an outlier, I believe (though that level of setting development is worth aspiring to).
But most of the time, setting plays the part of a facilitator: of enhancing existing character conflict, of creating new conflict, of pushing characters to their extremes. What's your central story, your central character conflict, and how can setting enhance that? How can setting push the envelope even further, reveal even more about your characters, and stack the odds ever higher against them?
I come back to Game of Thrones a lot for examples because GRRM really rocks at character. One things he does well is the "fish out of water"—taking a character used to a particular setting, and throwing them into a dramatically different one to see how they respond. Taking someone who's lived life on the water and land-locking them; yanking a wealthy girl out of her cozy life and making her an anonymous peasant struggling to survive like any other. (A "fall from grace" always makes for a good story.) Setting is simply another tool to reveal more angles, edges, and shades of character.
Using Plot to Push Character Envelopes
This one is covered often and in depth when people talk about writing (it's usually referred to as "putting a character in a tree and throwing rocks at them"), so I won't spend too much time on it. But in the end, good plot circles around to character, just like everything else.
Like setting, plot should function only to push the characters to their limits; to see where they start to stretch and break like rubber bands.
Obviously, great plots explore themes that are important to you or to your work. But all that stuff—what message you want to convey, what ideas you shine your narrative light on—ought to take a back seat to character if you really want to tell a compelling story. (If page turning is low on your priority list, none of this matters anyway, and you might consider writing academic articles instead.)
When you follow the character formula and place plot at the mercy of character, when you design your story arc around putting your characters in uncomfortable situations so you can watch them stretch and struggle and grow, themes emerge naturally. You may find your writing exploring ideas you hadn't considered and wandering into thematic grey areas you didn't expect.
Because characters are a bit like children. You give them the tools they need (story, plot, setting) and they do a miraculous job of beating themselves up, of learning, of growing, all on their own.