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?


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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