Q&A

How Do I Keep My Character-Driven Novel From Dragging?

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So I have a novel I want to write that takes place over the course of a year (and a day). The problem is that it’s a character-driven piece; while there are some specific events that occur and link up, the focus is more on characters and their relationships. Mainly, the protagonist, her love interest, and her friend.

I’m worried that, even with time skips (which I can’t go overboard on without sacrificing character growth), the novel will drag on for too long. And while length wouldn’t be a problem if I was writing an epic, this is more intimate. I don’t know if readers would have the patience for it.

Any tips you could give me on this?

-Innocent Bystander

Hi Innocent Bystander,

It’s great you’re thinking about this, because that’s certainly something that can go wrong with longer personal stories. However, it’s still possible to pull it off. Several different factors will affect whether you succeed.

  • First, even in a story that’s about characters and relationships, you should still be working to cultivate conflict and tension; the stakes are just at a personal level. Maybe you are already doing this, but writers often say their story is about characters and relationships to avoid including as much tension as they should. Your description of having some specific events that link up makes me wonder whether this piece has a strong throughline. Maybe you do and just didn’t say more. However, I thought it was worth mentioning because if you aren’t cultivating tension or including good structure, that can doom the piece.
  • Keeping reader engagement during a personal/interpersonal story depends on the audience really caring about the characters and their relationships. They have to be emotionally invested in seeing the characters solve their problems. That investment is what will carry them through a longer story. Give some beta readers just your opening chapters and then ask them how strongly they’re invested. That way you can see whether you’re accomplishing what you need to.
  • With the length, the key thing is that you aren’t padding those personal arcs so they take longer than they naturally would. If you want the story to last a year because it feels like the right amount of time for characters to resolve their problems, then I wouldn’t be too worried. But if you want it to take that long because it’s supposed to start and end on New Year’s Day, and you feel you have to add more character scenes just to fill out that timeline, that could create problems. In that case, consider bringing in more external conflict to use up some time.
  • For whether the story will drag, the key is to keep things moving forward. With relationships especially, it’s easy to have them get together, and break up, and get together, and break up again just to fill time. If readers feel you’re retreading places you’ve already explored, that’s when their patience will run out. Relationships should be continually evolving; if the protagonist and the love interest do break up a second time, it needs to feel like they are in a different place and they’ve still made progress. Same with character growth. You don’t want several scenes where a character deals with the same issue and it doesn’t feel like they’ve learned anything since last time.

Keep in mind that even with a character-focused story, adding more external conflict often makes everything easier. The right external conflicts can really bring out their personal struggles, and it doesn’t have to mean drowning out the emotional component of the story.

Best wishes with your story!

Chris

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I agree with Chris here … even though your story is driven by the characters and their interactions, and external plot will make things more interesting for the readers. It’s not that hard to connect an external plot with the internal plot you want – to make it serve your characters’ development.

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