Updated: Sep 25, 2020
Hi, everybody! Today I wanted to address the topic of Character-Driven stories versus Plot-Driven stories.
In general, a Plot-Driven story is one in which the plot events are the focus of the story. Think action movies – the fast-paced, suspenseful events are the focus, and the characters’ internal development, while present, often seems to take a backseat to the heart-racing action of the plot.
Character-Driven stories, on the other hand, focus primarily on the internal conflicts of the characters. While these stories may have suspenseful, action-packed events, the focus of the story is on the characters’ growth, relationships between characters, and navigating internal and interpersonal conflicts. Romance and contemporary fiction often fall into this category.
Then there are some genres, like fantasy, which often seem to have a nearly-even blend of action and intense character development.
So that begs the question – which matters more?
Are character-driven stories better than plot-driven stories?
When you’re planning out a story, how do you decide what to focus on?
Thankfully, there is a simple answer to this:
ALL STORIES ARE CHARACTER-DRIVEN.
“But you just said that action stories don’t focus on characters. And what about horror, and other genres that are all about suspense and fast-paced action?”
Yeah, I know I said that. And yes, some genres seem to be all about the action – all about the plot. But here’s the thing… even in those stories, the characters are what make the plot matter.
Think of The Hunger Games, for example. Essentially, the story is a plot-driven one. It is fast-paced, and comprised of a string of suspenseful scenes blended in with intense action scenes in which the protagonist is literally fighting for her life. But without Katniss, it means little.
Without the carefully-laid groundwork in the first part of the book, in which we get to know Katniss and enter her ordinary world, none of the following events would mean anything to us. Why would we care that Prim gets chosen at the reaping, if we didn’t know how much Katniss cares for Prim? Why would it matter to us that Katniss volunteers for the Games, if we didn’t already feel a connection to Katniss? Why would readers cheer for Katniss and Peeta to realize their feelings for one another, and to survive the games, if we didn’t care about them as individual characters? Their backstory, their personalities, the time spent entering their world and getting to know them before the plot action really kicks off – that is why readers care about any of it.
Characters are what make the plot mean something. Otherwise, it’s just a semi-interesting concept. “Oh, a world in which kids are forced to fight to the death? That would make an intriguing story.” Without the characters, it’s just a list of events, an idea that *could be* a good story. Katniss and Peeta and Prim and Rue and the others – they make the story what it is.
So, here’s the thing: Does plot matter? YES. Without a plot, you have characters just sitting around doing nothing. That’s boring.
But… without characters, you have a semi-meaningless chain of events with little impact. The reason we care about suspense and action is because of how they impact the characters. The reason we cheer for victory in a fight is because we care about the characters, and the victory means something to them.
The truth is, some writers are naturally drawn to crafting intricate plots, while others are more interested in fleshing out characters and creating complex people for their stories.
Depending on what genre you’re writing, the balance of these two elements will differ.
But a good story will always have both.
So if you’re a plot-focused writer, here’s my tip for you:
Remember that your characters make your plot come alive. You have a talent for planning out intricate storylines; that’s a gift! But spend time on getting to know your characters and really making them interesting, well-rounded personalities… and then be sure that the plot events matter to your characters. Give your character high stakes in the action, do-or-die stakes. Add in moments for your characters to reflect on the action, think through things, and make decisions that impact their growth as people. You might be surprised how suddenly your fascinating plot becomes so much deeper and richer.
If you’re a character-driven writer, here’s my tip for you:
Don’t under-estimate the power of combining suspenseful action in with your character’s internal conflict. Internal conflict is important, but by itself it becomes stagnant. Your readers want to see your characters doing something. Try to think of external conflicts that would naturally fall in line with your characters’ internal conflicts, and then craft a plot that weaves them together seamlessly. Don’t be afraid to throw major external obstacles in your character’s way. You’ve taken the time to craft well-rounded characters – now have fun with putting your characters in difficult situations and imagining what they would do. Use your plot to deepen your characters’ growth.
I hope this is helpful to those of you who have wondered about character-driven versus plot-driven stories. I’d love to discuss any questions you have and read any feedback or comments. Just post them below!
As always, thanks for reading!