Character-Driven Fiction, as Explained by The Grinch

Over the past few weeks, I’ve read Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch to my kids roughly a million times. It occurred to me, sometime around reading 550, that the story perfectly illustrates how to structure character-driven fiction. Why do I consider this character-driven fiction (as opposed to plot-driven)? Because the tension of the story derives out of who the Grinch is (a person who hates Christmas, a person whose heart is too small) and because the climax focuses on his transformation into someone different. The story isn’t really about the particular Christmas the Grinch decided to steal; it’s about how this experience changed him.

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Because character-driven fiction generally starts with a flawed character, rather than an event, it can be tricky to plot. How do you show the character’s transformation while still developing an engaging and well-paced plot? Using three-act plot structure developed by story and script consultant Michael Hauge, we can see how Dr. Seuss does it with The Grinch.

Act I

1. Setup: Introduce the character and create empathy.

All the Whos in Who-ville love Christmas. The Grinch, who lives just North of Who-ville hates it. No one is really sure why. His head might be on crooked, or he needs new shoes. The most likely theory is that his heart is too small. 

2. Opportunity: An event occurs that creates a desire within the character. The reader gets a glimpse of his longing or need.

All the Whos are right now hanging their stockings and mistletoe wreath. Christmas is coming tomorrow, and the Grinch wants to stop it. The descriptions of the celebrations highlight everything the Grinch hates. 

3. New situation: The character attempts to do something about his longing or need.

The Grinch decides to dress up like Santa Claus. 

4. Change of Plans: An event creates a new desire with a specific goal and a visible end point.

This doesn’t really happen for the Grinch, as his goal remains fixed on stopping Christmas. Because The Grinch is obviously much shorter and less complex than a novel, it doesn’t incorporate this plot twist. The Grinch does run into a bit of trouble, though, when he can’t find a reindeer. 

Act II

5. Progress: The character attempts to make progress toward his goal.

The Grinch dresses his dog Max up as a reindeer and loads up his sleigh. 

6. Point of no return: The character must do something to show that he is fully pursuing his new goal.

The Grinch arrives in Who-ville and starts shoving stockings, presents, and Christmas decorations into his sack. 

7. Complication & higher stakes: The character encounters a road-block toward achieving his goal.

Cindy-Lou Who gets out of bed and catches the Grinch in the act. He lies to her and proceeds with his plan to steal Christmas, loading his sleigh up and driving to the top of Mt. Crumpit. 

8. Major setback: An “all is lost” moment causes the character to retreat.

The Grinch listens for the sound of crying Whos and hears them singing instead. He hasn’t stopped Christmas from coming. 

Act III

9. Final push: The character rebounds from the major setback.

The Grinch spends three hours trying to figure out why his plan failed, and he realizes that Christmas doesn’t come from a store. 

10. Climax: Final turning point in the story that brings together the internal and external conflicts.

The Grinch’s internal conflict is that his heart is too small. The external conflict is that he’s stolen the Whos Christmas and now realizes he’s been wrong about Christmas all along. In the climax, his heart grows three sizes, giving him the strength to save the sleigh and bring everything back to Who-ville. 

11. Aftermath: Show a glimpse of the character’s new life.

The Grinch has Christmas dinner with the Whos, and carves their roast beast. 

So there you have it. Three-act structure with a focus on character development and transformation. If you’re working on a character-driven novel, consider applying this outline to your work to see if you’ve done enough to develop your story.

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