Character-Driven versus Plot-Driven Stories

Character-Driven versus Plot-Driven Stories

You sometimes hear people talk about character-driven versus plot-driven stories. Generally, plot is more important in genre fiction, though I would say that character is important in every story. I like plot. I miss it in a novel that seems to drift along. But it’s character that makes me love a book, remember it, reread it.

That being said, the difficulty of creating a good plot is underestimated. Part of the difficulty is just coming up with something unexpected and intriguing. But part of it is also that readers and writers haven’t always articulated exactly what plot is.

What is a plot?

Plot is not just what happens. It’s not just a string of events. My day has a string of events, but it doesn’t have a plot.

Instead, plot is made of events connected by cause and effect. That’s why at some level we are dissatisfied when a story includes, say, a car whose brakes give out so the characters have a scary ride, but then the scary ride makes no difference to the plot. The characters aren’t made late in some important way. The car’s problem isn’t made crucial because they need it to escape. It’s just a random event, probably included because the writer felt the story’s tension was dropping. It’s more like the events of my day rather than the causally connected events in a plot.

One way to think of this is in terms of movement versus action. In this case, the brake failure is just movement without any meaning or impact. In contrast, for an event to qualify as an action, it has to have significance beyond the moment.

Plot and character are intertwined

Critics sometimes argue whether character-driven or plot-driven stories are better. To me, that’s a false argument because, as Alicia Rasley points out, character and plot are intertwined. The plot happens as it does because this particular character acts in a way that is characteristic of them. Without this character, the plot wouldn’t happen or would happen differently.

Similarly, the character needs the events of this plot to push them to change, to go through a character arc that is satisfying for the reader. Change is hard. Like people in real life, characters need the push of events to step out of their comfort zone.

Check out plot and character as you read or write

Watch for how, in a satisfying story, actions are causally connected and have consequences. And notice how plot and character work together to make you love a story.

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