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July 26, 2011

What Drives a Story: Plot or Characters?

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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What do you think?

74 Comments on "What Drives a Story: Plot or Characters?"

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Michele Shaw

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!

Susan Sipal

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.

Jacquelyn Smith

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!

J. M. Dow
J. M. Dow

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.

Maryanne Fantalis

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?

Brooke Johnson

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.

J. A. Paul

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… “

Suzanne Johnson

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).

Kait Nolan

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

Tiffany A White

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

Melinda Collins
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… Read more »
Deri Ross
Deri Ross
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,… Read more »
Deri Ross
Deri Ross

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

Roxanne Skelly
Roxanne Skelly

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.

Sonia Lal

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.

Stacy Green

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.

Lynn Kelley

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!

Gene Lempp

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 🙂

S Wesley Steam

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

Murphy

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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[…] controversial topics.  It’s a good thing I’m still wearing my flameproof jacket from my last post on plot vs. character. […]

Kyla

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!

dee savoy
dee savoy

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.

Nancy Thompson

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.

Andrew Mocete

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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[…] Gold tackles two of the eternal debates of the writing world this week in What Drives A Story: Plot or Characters? and Should Books Have a Ratings […]

Kelley

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 🙂

cetiken
cetiken

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.

cetiken
cetiken

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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[…] business has endless debates and choices where people want us to take sides.  Plotter vs. pantser, plot-driven vs. character-driven, traditional publishing vs. self-publishing. […]

Serena
Serena
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… Read more »
HP van Duuren

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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[…] make matters worse, I am a character driven writer vs a plot driven one. That generally means my story develops a bit slower, and my character […]

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[…] Jami Gold offers a much more satisfying answer when she writes, “So what do I think really drives a story?  A character’s reactions to plot events that motivate them to change.” In horror, the question becomes, can the protagonist’s change happen before the antagonist catches up? If the protagonist can, then yippee! If not, well…gulp. […]

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[…] Post you’ll like: What Drives a Story: Plot or Characters? […]

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[…] Are your characters more important than your plot? https://jamigold.com/2011/07/what-drives-a-story-plot-or-characters/ […]

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[…] Post you’ll like: What Drives a Story: Plot or Characters? […]

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[…] Post you’ll like: What Drives a Story: Plot or Characters? […]

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