Updated: Mar 21, 2019
A lot of you have asked lately about the difference between plot-driven books and character-driven books. These terms are thrown around and often used pretty loosely.
To many writers, the terms “character-driven” and “plot-driven” imply that one is less important than the other. Is a plot-driven story devoid of strong characters and motivations? In a character-driven story, is the plot stuffy, boring, and unimportant?
Many people draw the distinction based solely on genre, that is, that all literary fiction is character-driven and all genre fiction is plot-driven. But is that true?
What it means
The difference between plot-driven or character-driven really depends on the focus of the story.
Plot-driven stories focus on external conflict and action. The goals of the protagonist are external: get away from the zombies, keep the bad guy from killing innocents, or catch the murderer and solve the mystery.
Character-driven stories focus more on inner conflict, characterization, and relationships between characters. The main character’s goals are internal: overcoming grief and learning to live again, mending a broken marriage, or coping with personal shortcomings.
A good story will certainly have some of both, but there is almost always a heavier focus on one over the other.
What it doesn’t mean
This doesn’t mean that either the plot or the character development become unimportant. Every well-written novel must have a combination of engaging characters and a compelling plot. In successful plot-driven stories, for example, the characters and their motivations are still relatable and compelling to readers. What makes it plot-driven is only that the writing focuses more heavily on the external events than on characterization.