How to Tell a Story With Just One Character

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I have a couple of guy friends who live together who are Star Wars fans. Calling them fans is actually an understatement.

one character story
Photo by JD Hancock (Creative Commons)

I joined them at their place for the last thirty to forty-five minutes of Episode three, or whichever one was the one that came out most recently. I've seen the original trilogy, but that was when I was about ten years old, and I don't remember much of the story details other than Luke's father is evil, and Leia's his sister, and she loves Han, and Han knows. There's a happy ending thrown in there somewhere too.

The Star Wars canon follows the theme of last week with a truckload of characters. But what happens when you take the complete opposite approach, and pare down your cast of characters to one person?

Is It Possible to Tell a One-Character Story?

One of the easiest ways to build characterization and personality in a protagonist is to surround them with people to interact with. When a character is by him or herself, developing an interesting character becomes a greater challenge. It's doable though. Gary Paulsen's Hatchet, for most of the book, has only one character, and it's one of the classic elementary/middle school reading books. Cast Away features Tom Hanks stuck on an island for four years by himself. If you're feeling up for a challenge, writing a story featuring one character is a great exercise.

Here are two things to remember when writing a story with one central character.

1. Your reader needs to care about your character.

When the reader is only following one character, it is even more important that they have a connection to them. They can't get lost in a cast of characters, and you don't have multiple plot threads to keep the reader's attention. It is critical that you're able to give the character a purpose or a reason for the reader to care about what the character does or what happens to him or her.

Remember, just like with boatloads of characters, your character doesn't have to be good in order for the reader to care about them. Villains are just as interesting as heroes.

2. Have a conflict.

Conflict drives story. Conflict is what kickstarts the plot. Without conflict, there's no plot, and no story. Maybe your character's conflict is the reason they're alone, or maybe the conflict is all in the character's head space. Maybe the character is trying to escape something like in the case of 127 Hours. You need to have some sense of conflict to lend additional motivation to your character, and to drive your story forward.

One thing to keep in mind with your story of one: Just because you have one central character by themselves doesn't mean they can't have interactions with others. Flashbacks are useful in writing this kind of story, and animals and inanimate objects can become points of interaction for the protagonist. Hatchet and Cast Away have used these tactics, and they can provide additional information about the protagonist or their circumstances.

What are your favorite works that focus on just one character?

PRACTICE

You can tell where this is going, right? Write for fifteen minutes about just one character. Use the tips that we've discussed above to connect us with your character and set a conflict in motion. Post your practice in the comments and check out the work of your fellow writers.

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

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29 Comments

  1. James Hall

    I love this post, and I think you nailed it, Liz.

    In RA Salvatore’s Exile, the main character is alone for much of the beginning of the book. He has a pet. His conflict, initially, is survival. The conflict is deepened by his mental state of thinking he is becoming a merciless savage. Concerned for his state of mind, he submits himself to other races, even under the threat they might kill him.

    I’ve seen that these loner situations tend to make interaction with other characters more interesting and fulfilling.

    Reply
  2. Pavel Merzlikin

    Nice article!
    Thanks!

    Reply
  3. James Hall

    Debris and rubble littered the floor of the cavern, settled in a strange distribution with most falling towards the center of the room where the rift had sucked them in. Others were embedded into the ceiling and walls as the rift collapse shot the debris hanging in the air with astounding ferocity. Etzin and Magrin, smashed against opposite cavern walls, lay in bloodied heaps of rumble.

    The golem stirred. The purple tint of the metallic golem remained the same, but
    something was different. The flesh golem was nowhere to be seen. The golem
    stood and then waited. It rocked to and fro with an awkward breathing motion.
    And waited. Without a command, the golem did nothing but stand. It knew
    nothing, but commands.

    Hours passed. At great length a sense awoke in the golem. Unable to understand the sense, the golem felt urged to return to his master. This proved difficult in and of itself, for the golem did not feel drawn to Etzin, his creator, his master, alone, but also to Magrin, the clan master that had led the war against the city of Regar.

    Lifting first his left giant leg, the golem moved towards Etzin, but, strangely, his
    right leg moved toward Magrin. A couple more steps resulted in the golem losing its balance and toppling over.

    Once again standing upon its great steel boots, it began to move again. At odds with itself, it lifted a leg that jerked to and fro, neither sure to go forward, neither sure to go back. Slowly, at combat with itself the entire way, the golem struggled slowly towards Etzin. Each step was unbearably slow and agonizing, though it took only four of its ten-foot steps to reach Etzin. Bending at its
    metallic waist, it scooped up the broken body of its master. Holding its hand
    flat and before it, it stared at its master, unsure of itself, unsure of its
    master, and unsure of the pain it felt.

    Stilling holding his hand before him, he trod across the hollow and lonesome cavern, to where Magrin lay. Bending low, he scooped the wicked spellweaver into his other adamantine gauntlet. There he stood, like a frozen statue holding both spellweavers in his flat and upturned hands, unable to understand or comprehend anything but mental instructions. It looked from master to master, for both were his master, for the flesh golem was now within him.

    And there, in his pitiful statuesque pose, he stayed for days.

    Reply
    • Abigail Rogers

      Nice work, James! I didn’t know what a golem was before reading this and had to look it up. Intriguing concept. I’d like to know what the resolution to this scene will be.

      Reply
      • James Hall

        Thank you. I’ll give you a hint, he has become a living creature. What are some things all living things do?

        Reply
    • The Striped Sweater

      A golem’s eye view. I love it.

      Reply
  4. ee

    I’m writing a story right now with a lone protagonist. It is a kids’s story so I considered adding some friends or a dog. Think I’ll stay the course for now. Thanks for the tips

    Reply
    • James Hall

      why not write it and see if your like where it goes. Good thing about writing is that you can take more than one path and figure out which you like best.

      Reply
  5. AlexBrantham

    Best ever single character pieces? Look up the “Talking Heads” series written by Alan Bennett and presented as monologues in short TV pieces. Brilliant, every one of them. You can find many of them on YouTube.

    Reply
  6. Abigail Rogers

    “Alone Soon”

    Cecily fingered the ivory parchment of the book, admiring the flowery lettering without really reading it. Her mind wandered, tempted in many directions at once. The work to be done–seeds to plant, vines to clear, preparing that venison that Rivens had just shot this morning–then she stopped as if her mind had run straight into a stone wall and she was left reeling from the impact. She wouldn’t be here much longer. What was the good in working? The Hall would be given up to the woman who had already done so much to ruin everything, and Cecily would be alone, alone again. Because she couldn’t stay with Jevan and Rivens. She had lived a lie long enough.

    They had lived together for nearly a year now. Sometimes they had hated one another, sometimes they realized they were all each had in the world. But Cecily had always been alone, in a way, separated by her guilt, her fear. All those warnings she’d not heeded, the dreams she’d pursued pell-mell, the heartache and destruction and pain and brokenness she’d caused. She was a monster, and the thing was that nobody knew it. They thought she was a loyal friend, a sweet girl, a beautiful woman, tragically misunderstood person who had changed for the better. Ha. Can anyone really change? There’s no changing the past.

    She was staring out the window by now, not even pretending to read. The thundering rain had slowed to a monotonous warm drizzle, and the window had clouded up on the inside. She traced nonsense designs into the tiny droplets.

    Roseburn Hall. Gone. And she would have to say goodbye to the only people in the world who might understand her if she let them. Perhaps she could go with them. She could keep up the name, the accent, the identity that she had crafted while living in the City. They could go on like this, eating and working and talking and reading together. She couldn’t marry Jevan, of course, that was out of the question. But couldn’t she continue being his friend? But why not marry him if she was going to stay…no. No more lies.

    Cecily threw down the book. Drizzle or no drizzle, she had to get out and do some work. At least hauling brush into burn piles or hacking apart a deer would give her mind someplace productive to wander.

    Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/beinecke_library/4406077077/

    Reply
    • James Hall

      Nice details. You’ve created some intrigue into the Cecily’s background.

      Editing for passive voice would help this passage. Strive for active voice by removing sentences with was and other forms of being.

      I like the name choices.

      Reply
        • James Hall

          I hate blogspot, i can’t figure the darn thing out. I’m more a fan of WordPress. http://vozey.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/are-you-bashing-yourself-or-criticizing-yourself/

          Though your image thing was kind of cool.

          Anyway.

          I would say passive voice isn’t too bad, but the worst in second paragraph. Second paragraph tends to be a information dump, too much background information too quick. Spreading it out of setting or dialog may work miracles for this section.

          If this is set in the 1300’s, your word choice doesn’t give this off because some of it is simply to modern. Especially where some of your “thoughts” are really summaries of her “thoughts”.

          Reply
          • Abigail Rogers

            Yeah, some Blogspot themes are harder to navigate than others.

            Good advice on the second paragraph. I can work on that.

            I struggled with whether or not to write in “Medieval dialect,” and came to the conclusion that I wasn’t familiar enough with it to express myself in the dialogue. Some characters have a different accent, others speak more formally, but I decided that I was basically translating a foreign language into modern terms.

    • The Striped Sweater

      I am curious as to the time period where this is set.

      Reply
      • Abigail Rogers

        Well, thank you for asking! It’s actually in a fantasy world, most similar to Britain in the 1300s.

        Reply
        • The Striped Sweater

          Cool!

          Reply
  7. Guest

    “Alone Soon”

    Cecily fingered the ivory parchment of the book, admiring the flowery lettering without really reading it. Her mind wandered, tempted in many directions at once. The work to be done–seeds to plant, vines to clear, preparing that venison that Rivens had just shot this morning–then she stopped as if her mind had run straight into a stone wall and she was left reeling from the impact. She wouldn’t be here much longer. What was the good in working? The Hall would be given up to the woman who had already done so much to ruin everything, and Cecily would be alone, alone again. Because she couldn’t stay with Jevan and Rivens. She had lived a lie long enough.

    They had lived together for nearly a year now. Sometimes they had hated one another, sometimes they realized they were all each had in the world. But Cecily had always been alone, in a way, separated by her guilt, her fear. All those warnings she’d not heeded, the dreams she’d pursued pell-mell, the heartache and destruction and pain and brokenness she’d caused. She was a monster, and the thing was that nobody knew it. They thought she was a loyal friend, a sweet girl, a beautiful woman, tragically misunderstood person who had changed for the better. Ha. Can anyone really change? There’s no changing the past.

    She was staring out the window by now, not even pretending to read. The thundering rain had slowed to a monotonous warm drizzle, and the window had clouded up on the inside. She traced nonsense designs into the tiny droplets.

    Roseburn Hall. Gone. And she would have to say goodbye to the only people in the world who might understand her if she let them. Perhaps she could go with them. She could keep up the name, the accent, the identity that she had crafted while living in the City. They could go on like this, eating and working and talking and reading together. She couldn’t marry Jevan, of course, that was out of the question. But couldn’t she continue being his friend? But why not marry him if she was going to stay…no. No more lies.

    Cecily threw down the book. Drizzle or no drizzle, she had to get out and do some work. At least hauling brush into burn piles or hacking apart a deer would give her mind someplace productive to wander.

    Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/beinecke_library/4406077077/

    Reply
    • Abigail Rogers

      Sorry about the repeat. I have no clue what Disqus is doing to my comments.

      Reply
      • James Hall

        Thats ok, twice as much to love.

        Reply
  8. debra elramey

    The Belle of Amherst was the best I’ve seen yet featuring one character.

    Based on the life of poet Emily Dickinson from 1830 to 1886, and set in her Amherst Massachusetts home, the play makes use of her work, diaries, and letters to recollect her encounters with the significant people in her life – family, close friends, and acquaintances. It balances the agony of her seclusion with the brief bright moments when she was able to experience some joy.

    William Luce was a master playwright in this one.

    Reply
  9. The Striped Sweater

    Clara stooped low. Rose petals littered the floor. “Tut,
    tut, none of that.” She hummed to herself. She deposited the rose petals in the
    recycling container. They’d turn to slime there, slime and soil and flowers
    again. She smiled, then shuddered. She loved the smell of roses. The reek of
    decomposition was a bit much for her.

    Reply
    • James Hall

      She must not like roses or whoever gave them to her.

      Short and poetic and beautiful.

      Reply
      • The Striped Sweater

        Thanks, James.

        Reply
  10. Big Bear Geek

    It’s said that God created man and woman and they lived
    happily in the Garden of Eden. It’s true, ya know. How is it that I know it’s
    true? I was there. It was a wondrous place filled with everything anyone could
    want, no foul weather and blue skies forever. No sickness or dangers, even the
    animals lived in harmony with each other. But, then came the snake. An evil
    creature who tricked Adam and Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. But that’s
    not what I saw. That’s not the truth, or even a little bit of it.

    No, on this day I heard Adam call out, “Eve honey, could you
    do me a favor?”

    Eve batted her blue eyes and bounced over to Adam. “Whatever
    you need my love!”

    Those were the days. God made woman to compliment man and Adam
    knew it. I watched in horror as Eve went to the tree of knowledge and plucked
    the low hanging fruit. I was too shocked to understand what was happening when he told her, “it’s ok – take a bite. I hear it’s really good!”

    I tried to stop her, but I got hung up in a tree and couldn’t
    move fast enough. The sound of that crunch still haunts me to this day. Eve screamed, “Adam, I’m naked!”

    Adam, being the wise man he was thought nothing of her
    outburst and took a bite of the apple himself. That’s when he realized he was
    naked too. You should have seen him trying to knit leaves together.

    Oh the tales that have been told – how Eve was tricked into
    taking the apple by the evil snake. But that’s not true. It was Adam all along.
    How do I know you ask? I was there, and I am the snake. But I’m not evil, no it
    wasn’t me that put the tree of temptation in the garden. I was just taking a
    quick peek at Eve, that’s all. A little unethical I admit but evil, No! I tried
    to talk to Adam and that’s when it got very bad. “You did this!” he screamed. “You
    tricked Eve!”

    Now, I admit that I had a little falling out with the big
    guy but heck, over a third of the others were with me on it. You can’t be wrong
    with that kind of support can you? But this, well, it was unacceptable.

    So, with a thunderous boom, a voice from above sounded. It was
    him and he was pissed to say the least. “What have you done!” came the
    commanding voice. Well, I was waiting for Adam to get it in spades but then it
    happened. “The snake tricked Eve!” Adam shouted.

    Now, I wasn’t shocked too much by that but then I learned
    something about God. He wasn’t paying attention. Nope, the big oaf believed
    Adam and then there was hell to pay and I got stuck with the check. Me and my
    friends were banished without due process to this rock where the only man and
    woman thought being naked was a bad thing.

    Oh, some of you think they were punished by being vanquished
    from the Garden. Not in the least. God, that oaf, made them mortal and gave
    them an out. Be good and come to heaven. What did I get? Immortal and stuck
    with the lowest intellect in the galaxy.

    So after a few thousand millennia, people get the wrong idea
    about my attitude. Think about it, I was set up by Adam himself and women have been blamed for eons because he lied and the big guy missed it.

    Can’t anyone see the victim in this?

    Reply
    • James Hall

      I’m not a Rolling Stone, I’ve no Sympathy for the Devil.

      Nicely done.

      Reply
    • Vivi Siow

      4 years later,someone bumps into your comment and sulks for the poor snake.

      Reply
  11. Jane G

    I have a one-character story in my files. I’m going to pull it out and have a fresh look at it.
    I have a very targeted audience and a universal theme,
    but the story could use some depth.
    I appreciate the suggestion of the use of flahback, never thought…

    Reply
  12. sam

    Thank you!

    Reply

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