Plot-driven or Character-driven: Does it Really Matter?

Does it really matter if your story is plot-driven or character-driven? | Jeni ChappelleA 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

character-driven or plot-driven | Jeni Chappelle

C’mon, you had to know I was going to use this.

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.

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.

Jeni Chappelle

Jeni Chappelle is a freelance editor. She lives in an itty-bitty town a few miles from Charlotte, NC with her family and a menagerie. Jeni is a participating editor in Pitch to Publication and #ShoreIndie. You can visit her blog and learn more about her editing at www.jenichappelle.com.

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11 comments on “Plot-driven or Character-driven: Does it Really Matter?
  1. Joyce Lavene says:

    Thanks. I have always thought this debate was crazy. As you said, character and plot are important to all books.

  2. DS McKnight says:

    When it comes to my own stories, I’ve never really think about whether they are plot or character driven because the two feel so entwined to me. As for what I start with when planning my story – it’s the characters – they show up, problems in tow.

  3. You are champion for balance and consideration, Jeni Chappelle! It takes a strong writer, in my opinion, to carry off a story that leans heavily on character and minimizes plot, or vise-versa. I think of plot and character (or voice, if you prefer) as being two of the three pillars of storytelling (the last pillar being setting). If you want your story to stand on its own without two of those pillars, the remaining one must be very strong indeed.

  4. Hello Jeni! I find both the characters and plot to be equally important. Reading a book where the main character is interesting, but the plot falls flat is like watching a movie where the lead actor is great, but the plot of the movie is boring. A good book has to have interesting characters and a fascinating plot. That’s what I aim for.

  5. Great post. You’re absolutely correct. A good story needs strong characters, good character development, and a plot (i.e., a story arc, not just a series of events). Whether it has to do with an internal or external struggle is irrelevant.

  6. Maria Rich says:

    My novel seems to be more character driven by your definition, and it’s horror. It does have a more external plot as well, but the major conflict is internal with both main characters.
    Great post! Thank you!
    Mia

  7. Ante says:

    Hey, I was googling on how important character development is and came across this. First of all, thanks for sharing. Second, I’d like some advice, please.
    I’m writing my first novel; science fiction. My story is heavily plot-driven. So much, in fact, that it almost makes no difference which character does something, as long as it’s done. You see, it’s set in a future fueled by rationality in a way, and what I’m trying to do is show things that are important, rendering own motives useless. For instance, in a case of an alien invasion, does it really matter what the character feels like and what their childhood was like? He can be sad, crazy, intelligent, this and that, but what matters is that these aliens need to be stopped, know what I’m saying? I read everywhere that characterisation is important, but I’m wondering if there are examples of it being not important. I’m just saying, if the world needs saving, a hero is the one that saves it, not the one that has certain emotions or whatever.

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