Plot vs Character Driven Novels

How do you identify the driving force behind your book?

When writing fiction, especially genre fiction (popular/commercial fiction), it’s important to have strength in both plot AND characters.

Characters make a story memorable and give readers a way in to connect at some empathetic, human level (even if characters are non-human). Plot separates a compelling narrative from an aimless rambling of stuff.

Since both are important, the lines get blurred. Sometimes the lines don’t really matter. But like so many concepts in the world of writing craft, it’s important to understand it so you can disregard it with intention. In other words, you have to understand the rules so you can break them.

Clarifying a misconception

Plot vs. Character driven is just that––the DRIVING force behind the story. Ask yourself, is the plot or the character behind the wheel of the novel-mobile?

I might sound like I’m repeating myself in saying this, but… BOTH ARE IMPORTANT.

A plot driven novel can still have compelling and evocative characters and vice versa. It isn’t that one is stronger than the other.

Clarifying a second misconception

Not all literary fiction is character driven and not all genre fiction is plot driven. Thank you. Good day.

Your story might be PLOT driven if…

  • You could replace the main characters with different characters and the story would still come to the same basic outcome
  • The predominant question/goal of the character is something external
    • Will she claim the throne, will he catch the killer, will they save the world?
  • Your protagonist is set upon defeating a specific villain
  • Most scenes either work to increase or overcome tension or obstacles in the plot
  • The ideas for the story arc came to you before you came up with a character sketch
  • The world has significantly shifted by the end of the story

Your story might be CHARACTER driven if…

  • Your characters are fighting something inside themselves
  • Your characters must deal with their internal struggles to move forward
  • The predominant question/goal of the character is something internal
    • Will she overcome her grief? Will he find forgiveness? Will they learn to love again?
  • Most scenes work to either progress your character to change or regress to their starting state
  • You thought of your characters first, developed who they are, their backstory (their flaws, etc.) before you knew the events that would in the story
  • The world remains more or less the same by the end, but your character’s viewpoint has significantly shifted

Why is it important to understand the driving force of your story?

Identifying your style preference will help you balance the two critical story components. 

If you know you are plot driven, this might require you to spend a little more time exploring your characters to give them depth and growth.

If you know you are character driven, your plotline might take a couple extra revisions to shine.

Can it be both?

Here’s my secret, Cap, I blur the lines like water color. I lean heavily into character and plot. Even when I’m planning out a new novel idea, I will get a concept first––a cool idea, so to speak. Then as I think more about that idea the characters and plot with simultaneously and meticulously come out of the ether.

I prefer my character arc to impact the plot and the plot arc to influence the character in cyclical measure.

At the end of the day, if I had to pick, I’d identify more as a plot driven writer by the sheer fact that I tend to keep my pacing full of action-packed “protagging”. 

If you’re like me and sit on a razor thin line, don’t stress! Write the story that is living in your heart and know that while there is the two main styles, writers write within every shade in between.

Can it be neither?

To this I answer, yes, anything’s possible. These are the two styles that most stories break down into, but sure if you wanted to write a full narrative where the driving force was revolving around a specific location or setting.

Or perhaps there is a specific concept that’s driving your novel and the plot and characters fall second in the progression of narrative development.

I recommend taking a look at Orson Scott Card’s MICE Quotient, which is a concept developed to categories stories as focused on Milieu (place), Ideas, Character, and Event. Every story contains degrees of either, but it isn’t always a balanced playing field!

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