What Drives a Story: Plot or Characters?

by Jami Gold on July 26, 2011

in Writing Stuff

Dog sled in the snow

Wish me luck.  I’m about to dive into one of the eternal debates among writers.  Which is “better”: a plot-driven story or a character-driven story?

If you’re not familiar with the debate, let me explain why this question is so fraught with potential landmines.  A common snub against genre stories is that they’re all about the plot to the detriment of the characters.  Likewise, a frequent complaint about literary stories is that they have no plot and are all about characters who don’t do anything but whine.

Ooo, a topic that touches on several volatile subjects?  *dons flameproof jacket*  Let’s go see what drives us.

What’s the Difference between Plot-Driven and Character-Driven?

A plot-driven story focuses on the action, while a character-driven story focuses on a character’s thoughts.  Simple enough, but let’s look at some examples.

Plot-driven novels are usually page-turners where characters have to make snap decisions.  As a result, they’re often light on character development.  Think Jurassic Park.

Character-driven novels show more of the process a character goes through as they make a decision.  As a result, plot events are more spread out.  Think Tom Hanks in Cast Away.

Is One Better than the Other?

The current publishing market makes us think plot-driven is better.  After all, buzzwords like tension, conflict, page-turning, etc. sound more like plot-driven concepts.  But as my examples above show, either approach can be successful.

Both approaches can also fail spectacularly.  Interestingly, they often fail in the same way: Nothing changes for the characters.

No change means no arc for the characters, emotions, or story.  At its essence, a story arc is “a character is at point A and then something happens and they end up at point B.”

My analysis of Green Lantern pointed out how Hal Jordan didn’t have enough of a character arc.  Plot-driven movies must have enough character development to show how things change for them.  Similarly, character-driven stories must have enough plot to give the characters a reason to change.

So maybe the real goal should be to have a solid mix of both characters and plot events.  When we think of Harry Potter, we’re just as likely to think of our favorite characters as our favorite scenes.  Our story won’t suffer if it has strong character and plot development.

How Do We Balance the Elements?

A page-turning story is about more than just throwing one event after another at the characters.  Plots and characters should be balanced.  As I mentioned in my Green Lantern post, I think the key to tying character and plot together is character motivation:

Motivations create the cause and effect that makes a plot hang together.  ABC happens and that makes character do DEF because of XYZ motivation.  Their action then makes GHI happen.

Character motivations need to be intricately woven into the story, or else the story would work with different characters and/or plot events.

  •  If a character’s goals and motivations aren’t important to the plot (or if they have no unique aspects), any character would do.  And if a character doesn’t matter, they’re a puppet, merely going through the motions.
  • If the plot elements aren’t important to the motivations for a character’s change (or if there are no unique events), our characters aren’t as deep as we’d like to think.  After all, real people react differently when faced with a birth as with a death.

And if any character or plot event would do, then we haven’t come up with a unique story.

So what do I think really drives a story?  A character’s reactions to plot events that motivate them to change.

Ta da!  My answer is both.  Or neither.  Depending on how we look at it.  *smile*

Okay, just in case that answer feels like a cheat, I offer this bonus.  Here’s a test to see if you lean toward plot-driven, character-driven, or balanced in your writing.  And more importantly, the article gives some ideas for how to strengthen your weakness.

Which types of stories do you like to read?  What type do you like to write?  Is that type of story your strength or do you struggle to meet that goal?  What examples can you think of for plot-driven, character-driven, or balanced stories?

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72 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Michele Shaw July 26, 2011 at 6:02 am

I would say I “lean” toward character, but of course, I want balance. Isn’t every day we spend writing like being back on the teeter totter? I’ve enjoyed books and movies that don’t achieve both, but I still want that even feel in my own work. Send that magic bullet over when you find it, k? Then I won’t have to work so hard! As always, a very informative post!

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Jami Gold July 26, 2011 at 8:33 am

Hi Michele,

I agree. I’ve enjoyed stories on both ends, but like you said, for my own work, I want that balance. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Susan Sipal July 26, 2011 at 6:04 am

I know I tend toward plot driven writing, so I try to pay special attention to my characters. Plots just seem to come easier to me. Like you said, though, ideally, one should feed the other and they should be inseparably entwined.

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Jami Gold July 26, 2011 at 8:50 am

Hi Susan,

I used to think I wrote plot-driven stories, but as I’ve learned more about the craft and plotting, my characters have gotten stronger. Weird but true. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Jacquelyn Smith July 26, 2011 at 6:10 am

I like to read stories that are balanced. I want to be pulled forward by an intriguing/exciting plot, but if I find the characters to be flat, I will lose interest and stop reading. I need to care about what happens to them. I would say I prefer to write this way as well.

My favourite books to read are the Kusheline series by Jacqueline Carey. They have epic, tension-filled plotlines, and they are written in first person, so you are intimately aware of the main character’s motivations, emotions, and reactions.

Great post!

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Jami Gold July 26, 2011 at 8:52 am

Hi Jacquelyn,

Exactly. A balance of the two will never hurt a story. :) Thanks for the comment and the recommendation!

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J. M. Dow July 26, 2011 at 7:34 am

Whoah! I just wrote a very similar post! (I like your’s better, though. Great post!)

I love to read from both genres. I read a lot of YA contemporary, but I also read a lot of genre fiction. I definitely think more in terms of plot, but I’ve been trying my darndest to make my characters people rather than puppets.

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Jami Gold July 26, 2011 at 8:56 am

Hi J.M.,

Um, sorry? :)

Yes, like I mentioned above, when I first started, my characters were more like puppets. But when I released the stranglehold I had on the plot to let it grow organically, they started acting like real people. I just fixed a flat scene this past weekend with that character problem. At least I’m getting better at identifying it. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Jami Gold July 26, 2011 at 9:05 am

No, now that I’ve read your post, I’ll change that “sorry” to a *fist bump*. :) Great minds and all that.

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Maryanne Fantalis July 26, 2011 at 8:32 am

OK, I haven’t taken the test yet, but my first thought is, there is a finite number of plots in the world but an infinite number of characters… right? You could take a basic story structure and simply by starting off with a different MC you would completely alter the outcome.

For example, take Jurassic Park’s plot and place Bartleby (Melville’s Scrivener) in the middle of it: “I’d prefer not to.” BAM! There goes your action.

So isn’t character more important?

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Jami Gold July 26, 2011 at 9:27 am

Hi Maryanne,

Great question! It depends on how high you’re looking at plot. If you’re looking at it from the “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl” level, then yes, there are only so many plots. At that level, we’re also boiling down the character to less than an archetype too though.

For the purposes of this post, that level isn’t detailed enough to show the reasons for a character to change. So the level of plot I’m talking about here are the plot events. A boy could meet a girl, or lose a girl, or get a girl in an infinite number of ways and combinations.

Even taking Bartleby, if we released a dinosaur in the Lawyer’s office, it would be a completely different story. In other words, if we look at specific plot events, there is just as much infinite variety. And if plot events change, a character’s reaction should change. Would Bartleby still want to sleep at the office if a dinosaur was on the loose? ;) Thanks for the great question and making me think!

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Maryanne Fantalis July 26, 2011 at 12:09 pm

I’d like to think Bartleby’d high-tail it out of there at the sight of a T-Rex. But he was awfully stubborn… Can you imagine him wandering the streets of Boston seeking the Great White Dinosaur? :D

Truly, if a writer is doing his/her job right, plot influences character and character influences plot. I was just trying to stir the pot a little.

I love playing these games with you, Jami. You are always interesting, always thought-provoking.

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Jami Gold July 26, 2011 at 2:43 pm

LOL! There’s a genre mash-up hiding in there. :)

And I love being made to think too. Really great comment – thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! :)

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Brooke Johnson July 26, 2011 at 9:48 am

I will *say* that I prefer character-driven stories, but if a character-driven story doesn’t have a plot, then it’s not my cup of tea. On the flip-side, I can read a plot-driven story and not care if the characters are fleshed out or not.

Character-driven stories are the ones that resonate with me (so long as there’s a plot somewhere in there). Plot-driven stories are somewhat forgettable. They are fun to read, but after finishing the book, I don’t really think about the characters or what happened. Whereas character-driven stories tend to stick in my mind for a really long time.

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Jami Gold July 26, 2011 at 11:58 am

Hi Brooke,

Plot-driven stories are somewhat forgettable. They are fun to read, but after finishing the book, I don’t really think about the characters or what happened.

Great point! Yes, plot-driven stories can be very entertaining, but like you said, they’re not usually the type to stick with you. Back to Harry Potter as an example of a balanced story, the plot events get blog posts and comments along the lines of “Yeah, that was cool!” But it’s the characters that invite countless essays about their motivations, flaws, weaknesses, etc. Thanks for the comment!

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J. A. Paul July 26, 2011 at 10:59 am

I prefer reading and writing character driven stories because they are lasting for me, but when I write them I try to motivate my characters with constant “opportunities” (obstacles, hurdles, problems, issues, beastly things… whatever you want to call them)

Your quote is key, “Character motivations need to be intricately woven into the story… “

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Jami Gold July 26, 2011 at 12:01 pm

Hi Jason,

LOL! at the “beastly things”. Yes, that’s it exactly. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Suzanne Johnson July 26, 2011 at 11:41 am

My writing definitely falls on the plot side of the scale, but I think the best books in my genre (UF) do both. You need to know why your characters react to the plot events as they do in order to make it “real” (even if it’s fantasy).

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Jami Gold July 26, 2011 at 12:05 pm

Hi Suzanne,

You need to know why your characters react to the plot events as they do in order to make it “real”.

Great point! Yes, character development often comes from the need to understand their motivations. Thanks for the comment!

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Kait Nolan July 26, 2011 at 11:43 am

This debate always reminds me of “Which diet is better?”, when in actuality, it’s all about moderation and balance. Nice post!

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Jami Gold July 26, 2011 at 12:06 pm

Hi Kait,

LOL! Yes, there are so many debates like that, aren’t there? Like the pantsers vs. plotters – which is better? Whichever one works for you and helps you write a great book. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Tiffany A White July 26, 2011 at 12:02 pm

I guess I have to say my characters drive my story, if I don’t know my characters, how can I know my plot?

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Jami Gold July 26, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Hi Tiffany,

Interesting! I’ve come up with story ideas from both sides – a character that I had to figure out a plot for, and a plot that I had to figure out a character for. Both times, it came down to trying to match those character motivations, strengths, and weaknesses with a plot that would bring those to the forefront. I wonder if that’s typical or not? :) Thanks for the comment!

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Melinda Collins July 26, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Great post, Jami!

I tend to teeter in the ‘in between’ with both reading and writing. There are some books that have no character development, but I’ll find myself unable to close the book because the plot is amazing. On the flip-side, I’ll read, what is considered the most boring books to some people, character driven books, and those are the ones that strike a chord within my soul and they’ll stay with me for years to come. I’m the same way with movies also. Sure, I enjoy a flat-character, blow-things-up, nothing-but-action blockbuster, but I also enjoy being hit hard and made to cry by those movies where the characters truly grow and develop right in front of your eyes (it’s baffling to me how those are the movies that don’t tend to do well at the box office).

In my writing, I’ve got the characters developed, though they could be fleshed out a *little more*, especially the secondary characters. I’ve also got, what I believe to be a very good plot, but it also needs to be developed a little more as well since it could use a bit more action here and there.

I fully agree that there should be a balance, and finding that balance is hard to do, but it’s what I continue to strive for in my writing. Having a character start at point A, then having X amount of events (or the plot) happen will motivate the character to find their way to point B, or if we’re lucky, they’ll find their way to point Z <–and what an amazing story it is when that happens.

Thank for the link – I'm definitely both Dramatic Action and Character Emotional Development. I've just got to work on both to ensure they leap off the page for the readers. :)

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Jami Gold July 26, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Hi Melinda,

Yes, those end-up-at-point-Z stories are amazing. :) Thanks for the comment and I’m glad you liked the link!

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Deri Ross July 26, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Great post, as always. As a reader, I need both plot and characters to be strong. Sci-fi seems to be one genre that seems to have a hard time with this. I’ve picked up many sci-fi books (at the library, fortunately) and didn’t get past the first few chapters because the characters were about as engaging as chess pieces. The were only vehicles to move forward what was sometimes a really engaging, unique plot. It was like the characters had no soul. Sci-fi/fantasy is my favorite genre, so you can imagine how disappointing that is. It seems to be changing, slowly, and since that is the genre I write, I take special care to think about my characters first and foremost.

This reminds me of Kristen Lamb’s two blogs from a month or so ago, one that contrasted the two Star Wars trilogies and another that talked about Star Trek. The first Star Wars trilogy and Star Trek (the entire franchise) focuses on characters first. You could take them out of their sci-fi universe and plunk them down anywhere and the dynamics of the stories still work. Now the second SW trilogy? Nothing but gimmicks. The characters were flat and quite unlikable.

Personally, I have an issue of coming up with great characters and plots in my head, but when I put it on paper the characters don’t pop the way I had imagined, so I have to work extra hard to get it right. It’s worth the effort though, I hope!

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Jami Gold July 26, 2011 at 2:51 pm

Hi Deri,

Your note about sci-fi is interesting, as when I was researching for this post, that genre was the most picked-on one for cardboard characters. So you’re certainly not the only person with that impression. And one of the very few “did not finish” books in my life was because of a character backstory hole in a sci-fi story. We can hope that situation is improving. (It will if you have any say, right? ;) )

Good point about the Star Wars prequel trilogy versus Star Trek and the original Star Wars. Yes, you could have Kirk and Bones anywhere, in any situation and the character dynamics would still be there. That’s a good sign of fleshed out characters. Thanks for the comment!

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Deri Ross July 26, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Gah! I apologize for all the typos. I really can’t get this typing with an arm splint thing down.

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Roxanne Skelly July 26, 2011 at 2:07 pm

I absolutely need good character development in the stories I read. Need need need. I also rather like something that wasn’t explicitly stated, worldbuilding. I want the story to take place in a world I’d want to be in.

Honestly, I’m not really a stickler for plot. As stated above, there are really only a few plots, even if the details are different from story to story.
Urban fantasy really only has a few.
Protagonist is harangued by some obscure but potentially powerful evil. Protagonist goes from place to place gathering more information about that evil. Protagonist fights the evil and loses. Protagonist gathers more tools to fight the evil. Protagonist fights and wins. (may happen over multiple books)

Mixing in good subplots involving character development helps (love interests, searching for lost family or whatever)

So I guess I’m the type who would like stories like Avatar. Meh plot. Appealing characters. Fabulous world. And yes, I really really really did like Avatar.

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Jami Gold July 26, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Hi Roxanne,

I had to laugh at your description of UF plots because most of that could also describe every A-Team episode. :)

And good point about world-building. In some stories, the world almost becomes like a character intertwined with the plot. Think Hogwarts in Harry Potter.

I enjoyed Avatar as well, but the main plot weakness bugged me to distraction. And what caused that plot weakness? A cardboard villain who had no motivation for their actions. (Even though the magic mineral was everywhere – those mountains had so much that they floated – let’s go after the one source that will piss off the natives. No reason for that decision. Just because we need conflict.) Yep, motivations are key. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Deri Ross July 26, 2011 at 3:20 pm

That is such an good point about Avatar. I loved that movie, but something just didn’t jive in the back of my mind while watching it. I too struggled with the reason why they had to bother the Na’vi when there was obviously vast unpopulated areas. I really expected to find out that the bad guy had lost something (wife, kid?) in some kind of fight with the Na’vi, or that the mineral would have enabled something important to happen to him on a personal level. His level of hate for no reason didn’t justify putting all his people at risk in such a fight. It was at odds of what we know about “good military men.” He needed a reason to hate the white whale, if you will.

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Jami Gold July 26, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Yes, and that plot point turned the movie into a bash against the military for no good reason. *sigh*

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Roxanne Skelly July 26, 2011 at 4:07 pm

Oh, I should note, that as a reader, I don’t so much mind weak plots, but as a writer, I’m trying to build strong plots. And I do notice weak plots when I’m reading critically. You know, reading not just for enjoyment but to learn from another writer.

Funny how I separate those two types of reading.

And, well, A-Team plots are at least a bit more complicated than Star Trek plots :)
1) Find spatial anomaly
2) Rescue self/aliens from spatial anomaly

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Jami Gold July 26, 2011 at 4:18 pm

Good point about the deep reading vs. enjoyment-only reading. Sort of like how I enjoy turn-brain-off movies like Green Lantern. :)

And with Star Trek, any time an ambassador or higher-up was on board, you knew they’d be trouble. :)

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Sonia Lal July 26, 2011 at 7:06 pm

I took that test, all the questions were easy to answer. LOL As far as reading goes, I like plot-driven stories with good characters! If the characters are weak, I probably won’t pick up the second book.

BTW: Funny you should mention Star Trek ambassadors. My brother is presently watching a Star Trek: The Next Generation that has a Klingon ambassador.

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Jami Gold July 26, 2011 at 7:23 pm

Hi Sonia,

Great point about how strong characters are especially important if they’re supposed to carry a series. :)

And it seems like in ST:TNG, it was usually the Federation muckety-mucks who were problematic. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Stacy Green July 26, 2011 at 7:33 pm

Both are key. I’ve been striving to have a page turner but also create three-dimensional characters that grow from beginning to end. Some people get wrapped up in plot, others stick with a book because they’ve fallen in love with the characters. I think striving for both is a good balance.

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Jami Gold July 26, 2011 at 7:51 pm

Hi Stacy,

Great point! Our readers might have different preferences so a balanced book is the best way to appeal to them all. (My commenters are so smart. :) ) Thanks for the comment!

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Lynn Kelley July 26, 2011 at 9:38 pm

These were tough questions to answer! I like to read both types of books, and I’m a little of both according to the test, but I can’t say it’s easy or that it’s well balanced. That’s where our critique partners come in, I guess! Nice post!

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Jami Gold July 27, 2011 at 8:03 am

Hi Lynn,

LOL! Yes, for me, some questions of each group were easy and some of each group were hard. As usual, I’m just not normal. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Gene Lempp July 27, 2011 at 2:58 am

Personally, and this is just me, I think the best writing has both plot and character woven together. Without character the plot has no one to travel its arc and without plot then the character has nothing to motivate them to change. When plot and character arcs are entwined then powerful story exists. Think of Frodo without the plot he would have stayed a simple hobbit and without Frodo would the plot have been as compelling. We felt fear for Frodo and cheered him on because he was a simple hobbit struggling against the greatest power in his world. We can all understand that one.

Great post, Jami. You were right, or wrong :)

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Jami Gold July 27, 2011 at 8:06 am

Hi Gene,

Ooo, excellent example! Yes, like I mentioned in my Green Lantern plot post, sometimes when the plots stakes are huge, we need the human element even more to be able to relate to the danger. Frodo and the hobbits gave us – quite literally – a small scale to focus on when dealing with the big picture. Thanks for the great comment!

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Gene Lempp July 27, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Precisely. What tension can there be if the hero can pulverize everything he meets? Too bad about the Green Lantern, maybe the writer(s) will read your dissection on it and do better next time :)

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Jami Gold July 27, 2011 at 5:52 pm

LOL! We can hope. :)

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S Wesley Steam July 27, 2011 at 5:12 am

“Balance” sums it up quite succinctly. We need more balance and less polarization in all aspects of our lives, writing no less.

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Jami Gold July 27, 2011 at 8:09 am

Hi S Wesley,

Very true, less polarization in many things would be good. (Says the woman who falls in the middle on the pantser vs. plotter debate too.) :) Thanks for the comment!

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Murphy July 27, 2011 at 6:56 am

Hi Jami:

You gotta know that I’m all about the characters. Because, let’s face it, if you don’t give a rat’s ass about the characters – will you really care when the Kraken comes a calling? Just saying.

Murphy

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Jami Gold July 27, 2011 at 8:12 am

Hi Murphy,

You know, when I was thinking of authors I knew who were strong in one area or another, I first thought of you as a character person, but the more I thought about your strong well-defined plots, the more I decided you were fairly balanced. :) (That’s right. Tell your honey someone called you “fairly balanced” on the internet today. LOL!) Thanks for the comment!

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Kyla July 28, 2011 at 3:11 pm

I actually agree with you. I’m a great believer in balance, and yell at people when they choose one element over another. I remember you said that my comment inspired a blog post, and I’m guessing this is the one, but I seriously meant exactly this. Both character and plot is important to story, and should be made to fit each other perfectly. Neither should be thought of as more important or key than the other.

Thanks so much for a thorough covering of the subject and I hope you have a wonderful day!

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Jami Gold July 28, 2011 at 3:41 pm

Hi Kyla,

Yes, this is the one! I usually give people credit and a heads up when they inspire me, but this post ended up going in a completely different direction than I planned, so I wasn’t sure how relevant it was to our original conversation. :) Thanks for the inspiration and the comment!

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dee savoy July 29, 2011 at 8:53 am

Great post, Jami. Exactly the post I would have written. I particularly agree with both elements meshing together well to create a great story. Thanks for the reminder that we need both, not one or the other.

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Jami Gold July 29, 2011 at 9:04 am

Hi Dee,

Yes, it never hurts to be reminded on how to improve our stories. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Nancy Thompson July 29, 2011 at 2:26 pm

Hey Jami! Though I’ve been reading your blog for months, I’m now a follower.

I loved this post because I have a hard time pidgeon-holing my story. It’s a thriller so the plot is essential but I guess I like to think that the plot is the road & the characters are the vehicles. Character development & change is what my story is all about. It’s just centered around a thrilling plot line.

And as far as that test, I definitely found it easier to answer the first half, but then again, the second half wasn’t difficult. So maybe my story is both. Geez, I’m more confused than ever now! Great article though.

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Jami Gold July 29, 2011 at 2:36 pm

Hi Nancy,

I like to think that the plot is the road & the characters are the vehicles.

Oh, I like that! :) The characters wouldn’t get anywhere (have an arc with change) without the road. And without the characters, the plot would be flat, static, and unchanging. Love it! I’d say you have at least a decent grasp on both sides. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Andrew Mocete July 29, 2011 at 5:56 pm

I suppose since I loved Jurassic Park (book and movie) and Castaway, I prefer GOOD stories. I’d rather not be thinking if it’s character or plot driven while I’m enjoying it. Maybe after because it’s fun to deconstruct and analyze, but not during.

I’m not sure where my writing falls, but as long as it satisfies the “Is it good?” criteria, I don’t really care.

Great post, Jami. Lots to think about.

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Jami Gold July 29, 2011 at 6:00 pm

Hi Andrew,

Yes, I enjoyed both of those movies too (which was why I picked them for examples), so I’m like you. I just want a good story, and the deconstructing can come later. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Kelley August 3, 2011 at 8:44 am

I am SO for character driven. But, I don’t want awesome characters sitting around making googly eyes at each other…so, that leaves me with a need for a balance (that’s slightly in the favor of characters)

From your newest follower :)

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Jami Gold August 3, 2011 at 9:37 am

Hi Kelley,

LOL at the googly eyes! :)

Yes, a long time ago, I’d coined my stories as plot-driven and character-focused to try to describe my attempt at that balance. Thanks for the comment and the follow!

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cetiken August 3, 2011 at 9:36 pm

I think its not a duality of plot vs character, but rather a delicate balance of Plot, Character, and Setting. Admittedly if you’re set in modern times then the setting is normally fine (though if its paranormal modern it can vary some).

Science Fiction is actually the biggest culprit of valuing an innovative setting over good plot and characterization. (I loves me some SciFi). My experience as an avid reader is that if one of the three is excellent and the rest are at least adequate the book is at least good. If multiple aspects are excellent then you’ve got something special.

The odd ball out is when two are fabulous and one is downright terrible. For example, GRRM’s A Song of Fire and Ice series has top notch characters (uncommon in fantasy) a first rate setting and no plot at all. I can’t stand it. Though it makes a much better soap on HBO.

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cetiken August 3, 2011 at 9:40 pm

I realized that I didn’t identify any good works that I thought excelled in multiple areas. I’ll submit Peter F. Hamilton’s Reality Dysfunction and two sequels as being of that high caliber that is rarely achieved in any work.

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Jami Gold August 3, 2011 at 9:50 pm

Hi Cetiken,

Good point! In some books, we tend to think of a well-developed setting as another character (like Hogwarts in Harry Potter), but setting can be an important aspect even without that level of personification. As you said, SciFi stories often incorporate strong settings. I’d add the historical (including time-travel), fantasy, and some regional (books about the South, for instance) genres to that list. Like you though, I get annoyed if the setting is stronger than the plot. Recently, a best-selling time-travel story irritated me for that very reason.

Thanks for the comment and examples!

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Serena April 3, 2012 at 6:17 pm

I’m…biased towards character-driven stories. In fact, this is related to what I call my “Spoiler Test” of whether a story is purely plot-driven, or is at least somewhat character-driven:

If you tell me all the major plot points–who died, who married who, who was the evil master behind the conspiracy, etc, and then you don’t want to read the story anymore, or this ruins the enjoyment of the story, then it’s plot driven. This is because plot driven stories excel in creating suspense–they thrive on how readers never know what will happen next. They depend on the readers’ desire to be surprised again and again. Who wants to read a suspense story with all the suspense sucked out of it? That would be a total waste of time!

But, if after you tell me who died, who and who ended up together, where the secret treasure was, who the real murderer was all along, etc, and I STILL want to read the story and CAN enjoy the story, then this is character driven. For this, spoilers don’t destroy anything for me, because the main pleasure is the gradual, step-by-step experience of all the emotions, thoughts, actions, and dialogues of the protagonists. Plot spoilers can only ruin the suspense and surprises, but they can never take away my joy in “feeling and experiencing” every detail, thrill and complexity of my character’s psychological life.

Thus, I think that character-driven stories are the ones with “lasting power”, that persist even if we’ve been told spoilers or know exactly what will happen. “Wuthering Heights” is a great example as I (shamefully) read its plot on wikipedia, yet still managed to enjoy the book–it was so absorbing!

However, without the tightness, suspense, and page-turner quality of a “plot-driven approach”, some readers would not even bother persevering through your whole, 400 page book—they’d probably just give up after the second chapter, or even before that.

So….my take on this debate is that Character is the quality and good stuff of the book, and Plot is the practical thing that carries and DISPLAYS all this good stuff. In other words, Character is the writer, and Plot is the literary agent!!! (Ok cheesy analogy, but you get my point.)

I had a story that started off completely plot-driven, the adventure/ quest type of story, but then I realized this wasn’t powerful enough. I needed to do something to help my characters because I loved them so much. So I changed it slightly in that my protagonist’s motivation now kick-starts this whole adventure, and this motivation (his greatest desire) is also the drive for the story all the way to the end of the adventure. He gains something in the end as a person, which you could say is his emotional development.

The plot/ character-driven writer test was awesome! I now have a clearer idea of what a well developed character means.

Ok I’m sorry that this is such a long post. I am going to shut up now.

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Jami Gold April 3, 2012 at 8:46 pm

Hi Serena,

Ooo, interesting “spoiler test.” :) I like that idea for measuring the character vs. the plot interest.

“Character is the quality and good stuff of the book, and Plot is the practical thing that carries and DISPLAYS all this good stuff.”

Great way to put it! And don’t worry about the long comment. :) My comment section often turns into conversations, especially when there are great observations like this. Thanks for sharing and thanks for the comment!

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HP van Duuren April 23, 2012 at 7:46 am

I do think that it also depends on what kind of readers you want to reach with your writing.

Are they more interested in a ‘Mind Plot?’ or an ‘Action Plot?’ or do they want a specific Combination? Are they interested in identifying with a Character and ‘Experiencing’ a story that way, or do they just want to read an ‘Exotic’ array of
‘Mindless’ actions with surprising turning points and suspense?

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Jami Gold April 23, 2012 at 9:09 am

Hi HP,

Good point! Yes, some of that has to do with genre expectations, but even withing a genre, some plots are more action-y than other. Thanks for the comment!

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Klaus Schilling October 23, 2014 at 10:47 am

I dislike both character-driven and action-driven stories/ I consider both plot and characters as nothing more than some evil but necessary tools in order to express ideas; and only the latter allow me to justify my writing for myself.

Reply

Jami Gold October 23, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Hi Klaus,

Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. :) However, that perspective doesn’t match with the vast majority of genre readers or writers. Have you tried looking for advice on the writing blogs of literary authors? They might be a better match for your style. Thanks for stopping by!

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