When I first started writing, I thought I was writing plot-driven novels because I write suspense. Suspense means action and murders and plot-twists and things happening.
But as I continued writing book after book, I realized that it wasn't the plot that was propelling my stories forward, it was the characters themselves. No matter what hurdle I threw at them, they had choices to make. And those choices were made because of who they were, not because of what "needed to happen" in the story.
With children, we gradually give them more responsibility and choices to make so that when they leave home, we hope they've learned enough to make the right decisions. We're not always going to be available to tell them what to do (and if we try, they may not listen!)
But characters are grown-ups. They're individuals capable of making their own choices. I finally let my characters grow up and leave the nest. I can't tell you how hard it was to give up that control. Here I had nurtured and created some wonderful, brave people and what? I had to let them screw up? No! But the truth is, yes. Characters make mistakes just like real people. Their choices are based on their life experiences, only their life experiences are what we've given them in their backstory. Or, what they've told us.
In THE HUNT, my heroine Miranda Moore is the sole survivor of a brutal serial killer who rapes and tortures women. I sort of understood her, knew her. Her mom wasn't around. Why? I didn't know until I started the chapter where she talks to her dad. Then I learned that her mother died of ovarian cancer when Miranda was six and that's why her dad left his fast-paced corporate job for a quiet life in Montana.
I knew that Miranda had been physically scarred, but I didn't know how it truly affected her until she looked in the mirror after a shower and knew exactly how many scars were on her breasts. It was a short, powerful scene that I never knew I would write until it happened.
Character is not just reserved for the hero and heroine. A story is richer because secondary characters add depth, conflict and emotion to the story. A villain needs to be real, not just a caricature of evil. Why is he the way he is? Why does he hurt people?
These are the things about characters that they know, and they tell us when they're ready. When we, their storyteller, allow them to be themselves. When we're ready to listen.
Isn't it true that we remember books based on the characters more than the plot? The last book you absolutely loved, why did you love it? Because of the cool plot, or the fascinating characters?
So while I write suspense with a lot of external things going on, first and foremost I write about characters. They're driving the story because without them, everything is simply a series of meaningless events.