Plot-Driven or Character-Driven: Does It Really Matter?

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.

Come on, you had to know I was going to use this.

The Test

Still not sure if your story is character-driven or plot-driven? There’s a quick test you can take to help you determine which is which.

Do the events cause the characters to respond, or do the characters’ responses cause the events?

Let’s look at some examples:

In The Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss responds to the external events: the government is abusing its people. Does she have her own internal motivations that influence her decisions? Of course. But the focus is on the actions she takes.

Verdict: plot-driven

In Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic series, though, the events of the story would not occur if not for Becky’s idiosyncrasies. The plot is compelling, entertaining, and sometimes downright hilarious, but the focus is on Becky’s relationships and overcoming her own flaws.

Verdict: character-driven

Does it really matter which I write?

The short answer is no.

The longer answer is that, while certain genres trend toward one or the other, there are successful stories of all genres written in both manners.

For example, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopian society, but it focuses on Offred’s loneliness and the contrast between who she is now and who she used to be. It technically qualifies as science fiction, but there’s no doubt that it’s character-driven.

The bottom line: Plot is not a dirty word

Many authors argue that their story is character-driven because they have strong characters with powerful motivation. That their character’s decisions are still what drive the plot. Yes, an evil wizard is going to kill everyone, but the protagonist still has to decide to fight him, right? And the deep POV means of course the reader has to focus on the inner world of the main character. While all that’s true, it doesn’t mean the story is character-driven.

The problem is that, because of that distinction I mentioned earlier (literary=character-driven, commercial/genre=plot-driven), plot-driven novels get a bad rap. The truth is that any well-written, captivating novel must have a balance of characterization and plot, action and exposition, internal and external conflict. If that balance is off, the story will fall flat, no matter what the genre.

Do you start with the characters or the plot when planning your writing? Leave a comment or tweet me @jenichappelle.


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