Character-Driven Plot: Should You Be Writing This Way?

If you are pondering using a character-driven plot in your story, you have come to the right place. If you don’t know what the writing types are; you have come to the right place. Also, if you are looking for the differences between a character-driven and story-driven plot; you have come to the right place.

Character Driven Plot Lines
Character-driven plots have a simple construct: Focus on the characters

How Should You Structure Your Story?

When it comes to writing a novel or screenplay, there are generally no rules. There are, however, guidelines. Sure, you can quibble over font types and margin spaces, but the real crux is how you write your story. Are you going to write a story-driven or character-driven plot? Do you even know what the difference is?

If you are unfamiliar with these terms (or believe I have them wrong), you may be thinking “Hey! Every story has characters and a storyline, aren’t all books character and story driven?”

You would be correct, but only sort of correct. Let’s see if I can clear a few things up for you.

What is a Story-Driven Plot?

Story-driven, or plot-driven stories, are just that. They focus on the timeline, the plot and subplots and the intricate details of what is going on in the world where the story takes place.

Yes, these books have characters, but the main focus is what happens to the characters while in this world. The characters themselves tend to remain 2-dimensional or “flat.”

Think of it this way: A story-driven plotline is more factual based, you can easily recognize what the environment is, even if it is a sci-fi and you have never been to this weird planet. The struggles the characters go through are external and non-personal. Basically, what is happening in the story would happen whether the characters were there or not.

Story-Driven Plots: Definition

When you read a story-driven book, the world inside is a fantastical journey of “who knows what will happen.” Things such as: time travel, outer space, magic, or a plot so deep you can sink your teeth into it. You will always be wondering what will happen next or where you will go, and they are exciting.

Every detail is thoroughly planned, structured and even the plot twists, sub-plots and turns of the story are crafted with love, devotion and care. All the loose ends are tied up nicely with a bow and you are left satisfied at the end, knowing all of your questions are answered.

If you are wondering what type of story you are currently reading, you can tell with a question. Tell the story to a friend, wrap it up like you are trying to get them to read it. Are you focusing your synopsis on what is happening or on the characters themselves?

If you remember what is going on but can’t remember who is in the story, you are reading a story-driven book. Or, you are reading Twilight and there is little hope for you.

What is a Character-Driven Plot?

A character-driven plot, then, is one that focuses less on the world in the story and more on the characters in the story. They focus on the who and what is happening to them as they grow.

While the book will also have a storyline, the main focus is on who is walking along that line. The struggles and growth the characters go through are more internal; based on emotions, feelings and personal conflicts.

Think of it this way: A character-driven plot doesn’t build extensive twists and turns, nor is every detail of the environment always well thought out. Instead, the characters seem to come to life and are well remembered for their emotional and internal battles.

Character-Driven Plots: Definition

When you read a character-driven plot, you read a book that makes the characters seem like real people. It is almost as if you can expect the characters to knock on your door and invite you out for a few drinks.

Every detail of the characters are planned and plotted. Generally, as the writer, you will have extensive back-stories for each character. You will know their family history, what they like and don’t like and how much change they have in their pockets.

Behind the scenes there is much more to the character than the reader will ever know about. It may not come up in your story that your main character loves strawberry flavored snow cones. As the writer, though, you will know. It is this type of knowledge that drives these books to have memorable characters that quickly become fan favorites.

If you are wondering if you are reading a character-driven book, do the same exercise as before: tell the story to a friend. If you notice that you say things like “So {character’s name} goes around and…” or “{characters name} has to find a way to…” then you are reading a character-driven book. You might also be reading Twilight, in which case, there is still no hope for you.

Examples of Character-Driven Books

If you want an idea of what to look for when trying to decide how to write your story, knowing what else is a character-driven plot will help. The following is a short list of such books.

  • Catcher in the Rye
  • The Great Gatsby
  • The Joy Luck Club
  • Job: A Comedy of Justice
  • Gone Girl
  • The Fault in Our Stars
  • A Song of Ice and Fire (Series)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Etc.

Shouldn’t a Book Be Both?

The short answer is that most books strive to be both character-driven and plot-driven. However, it rarely turns out that way unless the writer is both a master storyteller as well as an adept character development writer.

It is difficult to plot and plan a storyline so detailed and in-depth that it intrigues the reader to the point of being a plot-driven book. Add in the fact of how difficult it is to do the same for every character and you can see why it is generally one or the other.

There isn’t a right or wrong way of course, and fans will love your books no matter which side you focus on more. Robert Heinlein’s Job: A Comedy of Justice, as well as George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire are, in fact, examples of both story and character-driven books.

In both examples, not only are the storylines so intense and immense, that you can get lost in the twists and turns, but the characters are so real that you can’t help but love them (or hate them… I’m looking at you Joffrey!)

Can it be done? Absolutely. Should you strive for it? You can, but if you are just starting out with your first few novels, I would suggest you pick one or the other to focus on. For now.

I recommend striving for a character-driven plot. There are many reasons, and I will be mentioning them more in this week’s podcast (episode 7). However, I can sum up why you should in one sentence:

Great characters are remembered forever; Great stories only for a long time.

 

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