Character-driven vs. Plot-driven stories

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This essay was originally posted to the writing community Get Your Words Out on April 23, 2020.

When I volunteered to write this topic, it was as much to learn as to teach. For years, my opinion has been character=plot/plot=character; basically, you can’t have one without the other. Researching this, though, has widened my perspective, and I’m excited to apply it to my next WIPs.

To start with, let’s define the difference between a plot-driven and a character-driven story. Plot-driven focuses on external events, a “one damn thing after another” kind of plot where the main character is working to achieve a want. Adventure novels like the James Bond series and anything by Tom Clancy fall into this category. Character-driven focuses on internal changes, such as a character learning to overcome their fatal flaw in order to achieve a need.

This is not to say that plot-driven and character-driven can’t work together — they can, and when they do it can create a rich, strong story. A need is what a character learns in order to fulfill their want. All of the rising action teaches the character about their need, which in turn gives them the power or strength or what-have-you to fulfill the want.

Take a basic fairy tale type of story: Jack the farmer’s son wants to see the big city. He sets off on the long walk and meets friends and enemies along the way. When he reaches the city, he catches a glimpse of the king’s daughter in a window and wants to meet her.

In a plot-driven story, Jack could do something like disguise himself as a footman and sneak into the castle to meet the princess. But in a character-driven story, Jack could have the need of proving himself to be worthy of a princess’s love. On his journey, he could learn how to show kindness or the inherent nobility of his nature. He would then use this insight into himself to earn the king’s favor and be invited into the castle, and win over the princess because of his moral character. Happy ending!

That’s a very basic example. A plot template like Dan Harmon’s story circle can help with working out a plot outline, with an eye toward fulfilling the need.

Something to keep in mind is that by the midpoint of the story, the character should stop reacting to the plot’s events and starts acting. The character transitions from being driven by the plot to driving the plot themselves.

Happy ending!

Below are some videos and articles I found helpful:

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