Character vs. Plot. What drives your story?
This is a question that pops up from time to time around the writersphere, so I thought it was well-past time we discussed it here on the She's Novel blog. Sound like a plan, Stan?
If you've been following along for a while now, you probably know how much I stand behind the idea that characters are always more important than plot–or rather, that you can't have a strong plot without first having amazing characters.
But having amazing characters that lend themselves to a strong plot isn't quite the same as knowing whether your story is character- or plot-driven. Need a definition before we dive in deep?
What are character- and plot-driven stories?
Let's start with two quick definitions:
A Character-Driven Story features an exploration of the protagonist's internal development over the course of a story arc.
A Plot-Driven Story features a sequence of events in which the protagonist fights to attain a goal over the course of a story arc.
But character- and plot-driven stories can't be fully explained in just a single definition. Why? Because no matter which type of story you're writing, it still will contain both character and plot arcs.
Let's take a look at a few important definitions that will help us better understand both types of story:
Narrative: a written account of a sequence of events; a story.
Arc: the development of a narrative; also known as a "line" (e.g. "plot line").
Character: a person in a story and the mental and moral qualities distinctive to a person.
Plot: the main interrelated events of a story.
Story Arc: the main development of a narrative that runs through the beginning, middle, and end of a story; the crux of a story's events. Also called a "narrative arc".
Character Arc: the inner development of a character over the course of a series of events.
Plot Arc: the development of a series of interrelated external conflicts or events.
So what does all that mean?
Okay, I know that was quite a few definitions to digest. I apologize! Let's break down what all of that means in layman's terms.
A narrative is essentially a story, and every story has a main storyline. This main storyline is known as a story arc. A story may also contain several additional, less prominent arcs. Following me so far?
An arc can either represent a character's inner transformation over time (i.e. a character arc, also known as character development) or a series of action-filled events (i.e. a plot arc, also known as a plot line).
Every story contains both character and plot arcs, and can even contain multiple character and plot arcs, as we mentioned above.
That said, one of those character or plot arcs is going to serve as the main focus of your story; the story arc. This is what we mean when we discuss character-driven vs plot-driven stories.
Let's dive in deeper!
Still following along? Let's take our original definitions of character- and plot-driven stories and put them in layman's terms as well:
A Character-Driven Story has a main storyline that explores the protagonist's inner transformation over the course of the story's events.
A Plot-Driven Story has a main storyline that focuses on the protagonist's fight to overcome the external, physical struggle that keeps them from achieving their story goal.
"That's simple now, Kristen. Why didn't you just explain it that way in the first place?"
I hear you, friend!
But in order to improve in your craft, you first need to know your craft–and that includes those stuffy terms and boring definitions. (Or, you know, maybe I'm just evil. Muahaha!)
Back to the point!
As I mentioned above, all stories contain both plot and character arcs. Both arcs are definitely creatures all their own though, which is why I plan to discuss both of them in detail on the blog in the future. I'll make sure to link back to them here when those posts are up.
But all that said, one type of arc is going to come out on top, to serve as the main attraction of your story. Which is the better choice?
Which type of story should you write?
Either! Both character-driven and plot-driven stories are equally awesome.
I've heard some writers and readers claim that they prefer plot-driven stories because character-driven ones are boring, but in all honesty, I don't think those people understand the difference.
Just because a story is character-driven doesn't mean that it lacks action. Take The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien for example (*mild spoilers to follow*):
In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (a.k.a "the hobbit") joins Gandalf the Wizard and a company of dwarves to help the dwarves reclaim their homeland from a dragon. After a series of adventures along their journey, Bilbo and the dwarves to manage to drive the dragon away from Erebor.
But Erebor is full of vast riches, which the dragon hoarded. Armies of elves and men march on Erebor to seek compensation for past aid, but the dwarf prince refuses. Tensions mount until an army of orcs besieges Erebor and the elves, men, and dwarves band together to defeat them.
Only after the battle is over does Bilbo receive his share of the treasure for aiding the dwarves in retaking their homeland. He returns home a very wealthy hobbit.
That explanation of The Hobbit would make it seem plot-driven, right?
But that's not the case! After all, this novel is called The Hobbit, not The Battle of the Five Armies or Journey to Erebor. Here's what the true main story arc of The Hobbit is all about:
In The Hobbit, we are introduced to Bilbo Baggins, a quick-witted, adventurous hobbit who lives among a people who pride themselves in quiet, simple living. When called upon to aid a company of dwarves in reclaiming their homeland, Bilbo initially hesitates to go against the ideals of his fellow hobbits and take off on a grand adventure.
When his journey does begin, Bilbo is faced with a series of challenges that force him to move further and further out of his comfort zone, helping him to mature, gain wisdom, and uncover his true nature as a rather unique and adventurous hobbit.
Later, when the dwarf prince refuses to pay the elves and men, Bilbo is put in a position that might end the feud before violence begins but that requires him to step fully out of his comfort zone and act as a hero bearing the voice of reason.
Bilbo's heroic actions ultimately go unrewarded, but he aids in the Battle of the Five Armies and eventually returns home to live among his people, having gained wisdom, maturity, and bravery.
To some, that character arc might not sound near as exciting as battles and barrel-riding and dragon-fire (oh, my!), but when you place it among such rich and exciting action, you're left with a story that readers won't soon forget.
Does that mean character-driven stories are the better option?
No, not in the least! Plot-driven stories can be just as gripping and memorable. Take, for example, another famous Tolkien story, The Lord of the Rings:
In The Lord of the Rings, a hobbit named Frodo journeys with a fellowship of men, elves, dwarves, and hobbits to return the One Ring to the fires of Mount Doom, which will forever destroy the Dark Lord Sauron.
As the story progresses, it fans out into many different plot lines–featuring sword fights and battles galore!–but at the end of the day, the main storyline persists: Frodo must get the Ring to Mount Doom so he can destroy Sauron once and for all.
But of course such a perilous journey doesn't leave Frodo the same little hobbit as he was when he set out from the Shire. He undergoes a transformation–as do many other characters–but these transformations play second fiddle to the main plot-driven storyline.
Let's wrap it up!
So at the end of the day, write whichever type of story you'd like. Character-driven or plot-driven makes no difference, so long as you skillfully craft a story with amazing characters and a strong plot.
One last thing I will add is that you can almost always define whether a story is driven by character or plot by looking at its antagonist.
If your protagonist is facing a specific villain (e.g. Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, President Snow in The Hunger Games, Voldemort in the Harry Potter series, etc.), it's likely a plot-driven story.
But if your protagonist faces multiple antagonists, or if they serve as their own antagonist, it's likely a character-driven story (e.g. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, The Game of Thrones series, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, etc.).
This same concept holds true for my current WIP, The Eaves of Fall. *shameless plug* 😉
I'd love to hear about your current work-in-progress, friend. Are you writing a character-driven or plot-driven story? Did you make that choice intentionally or did it just kind of happen that way?
(I didn't know my own novel was character-driven until I was halfway through the first draft!)
Share your story (and any questions you may have) in the comments below!
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Kristen Kieffer is a writer of fantasy fiction and the creative writing coach behind She's Novel. She's made it her mission to help aspiring authors write sensational novels because obliterating expectations is her jam. Her other passions? Coffee and Tolkien, of course!