How do you know if a story is “Character Driven” or “Plot Driven”? I’ve heard that it’s not good to have a plot-driven story, but I’m confused. Isn’t that how all stories work?Atlas
Hey Atlas, great to hear from you again!
Your question came in at a great time because this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. The problem with terms like “Character Driven” and “Plot Driven” is that they don’t really have consistent meanings, but they can still trick writers into making bad story choices.
Sometimes, stories described as “Character Driven” just have really good characters. Firefly, Avatar, and Deep Space Nine all get categorized this way from time to time, despite having really strong plots as well. In other cases, “Character Driven” is a defense that people use when a story is critiqued for being boring. It doesn’t matter that Buffy’s sixth season is painfully dismal and has nothing interesting going on, it’s character driven!
At best, “Plot Driven” refers to stories that have strong plots but forgettable characters. More often, at least in my experience, it’s a kind of pejorative for stories where the characters make contrived choices so the author can have the ending they want. Game of Thrones’ eighth season is an obvious example. I’ve lost track of how many times people have referred to that mess of an ending as “Plot Driven.”
The problem with looking at stories this way is that it pits character and plot against each other. A good story can and should have both. Making your characters better doesn’t make your plot worse, and vice versa. Stories do have finite space, but usually there’s more than enough to develop both aspects. Improving your characters will make your plot better because readers will care more about what happens, and a strong plot means a more satisfactory conclusion for your characters.
If there’s a useful definition of “Character Driven,” it’s stories that have little or nothing in the way of external conflict, instead focusing mostly on internal and relationships arcs. The anime (and manga, I presume) Fruits Basket is one such story. This kind of story is challenging because it’s much easier to get readers invested in an external conflict than an internal one. However, it’s a valid option if you’re prepared for the difficulties.
But here’s the trick: those internal and relationship arcs are still plot. Plot isn’t just sword fights and political drama. It’s also about growth arcs, romance, and making new friends. Anything that has problems to be solved is a plot. It’s plot all the way down!
My primary advice is not to worry about labels like “Plot Driven” or “Character Driven.” Most of the time, they don’t really mean anything, and they obscure what your story actually needs. Writers who set out to craft a character-driven story, for example, often think that more is better. They add more backstory, more feelings, more flaws until the story is overwhelmed. I’ve never heard of someone setting out to write a plot-driven story, but if they did, their characters would likely be underdeveloped at best. There’s no substitute for good fundamentals, no matter how catchy a label someone comes up with.
Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your writing!
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Comments on What Is a “Character Driven” Story?
Interesting, I’ve always heard these terms used to tell whether the story is primarily driven by an external threat (“plot driven,” usually involving a blank protagonist) or by a proactive main character (“character driven”).
Using this definition, I fall into the “character driven” camp out of personal preference, but that’s not to say that there’s anything inherently wrong with the other kind of story.
This is also an ambiguous definition. In many works, the inciting incident is the reveal of an external threat, but the protagonist (often not blank) then takes proactive actions to solve the problem. You also often have a protagonist who simultaneously deals with an external threat and pursues an internal goal.
Do you define “character-driven” as “has a mainly proactive protagonist” or “the main conflict is internal” ? Do you define “plot-driven” as “has a mainly reactive protagonist” or “the main conflict is external” ?
Fair point, I can definitely see how this definition stumbles. I meant to talk in terms of mainly reactive vs. mainly proactive protagonists.
“What Is a ‘Character Driven’ Story?”
A word invented by the literary crowd to differentiate stories with merit from “pulp” they don’t like. In other words, not a very helpful distinction for storytelling.
Exactly like the division between “literary fiction” and “genre fiction”.
And it’s also used by bad writers to justify why their work is boring. It’s not bad, it’s “literary” and “character-driven”! Us peasants are just too unsophisticated to understand.
It COULD be useful to distinguish two different ways of creating a story concept: some writers think first of one of several characters and then build a plot that fits them, some writers start with an event or arc, then flesh out the characters involved in it.
The literary equivalent to the “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches in game design (from flavor to mechanics or vice-versa).
Both being completely valid, and both capable of creating all kind of stories, from the most fast-paced thriller to the most philosophical exploration of the human condition.
Unfortunately instead it’s used to judge stories as deep or shallow.
This is how I like to think of story creation – though I prefer to use “outside-in” (starting with the event or arc and finding the characters that fit it) and “inside-out” (starting with the characters and finding a plot that fits them)
I have the following concepts of plot-driven stories vs character-driven stories.
If I have a one-paragraph summary of the main conflict in a story, and that summary wouldn’t change much even when I change the main characters, then that story is plot-driven. For example. the first Avengers movie could be summarized as a group of superheroes fighting the attempt of a supervillain to take over Earth. This summary wouldn’t change even if I replaced the Avengers with other superheroes and/or replaced Loki with another supervillain.
On the other hand, if the summary of the main conflict wouldn’t change much when the plot is changed but the character traits of and the relationships between the main characters are kept the same, then the story is character-driven. For example, the first Thor movie could be summarized as the conflict between a younger brother who was jealous and resentful of his older, arrogant brother (who learned humility as the story progressed). As long as the traits of Thor and Loki and their relationship are the same, then changing the plot details wouldn’t change the summary of the main conflict that much.