Character-Driven vs Plot-Driven Stories

So y’all might have figured this out by now, but I write plot-driven stories.  Always.  Until last week when I wrote a character-driven short story for my Grandma.  Which was really, really hard. By why?  What is the difference between character and plot-driven stories?

Sounded like a good post topic to me.  I hope it is helpful to y’all!

Character –driven?

The difference between character and plot-driven novels is the difference between internal and external.  Internal and external story goal.  Internal and external conflict.  Internal and external change.  Whether the story’s impetus comes from inside or outside you character will determine the type of your story.

Character-driven stories are centered around character change.  The goal of a character driven story will be for your main character to learn a lesson of some (moral or eternal) substance.

Story Goal

Everything in your story starts with your story goal.  If you’re writing character-driven fiction, then your story goal is going to be closely related to the lesson your main character is going to learn.  Is your character going to learn to be more forgiving/trusting/loyal/kind?  Then that’s the first part of your story goal.

However, remember that your story goal needs to be achieved in a single photographable moment.  Even though this rule is much more loose for character-driven fiction, there is still some truth in it.  When will your character know that he’s actually kinder than he was when the book started?  What action will he take in the end of the book that he wouldn’t even consider when the book started?  Him taking that action is your climax.  And once he’s done it successfully, he’s achieved his story goal.

 

Conflict

Okay, once you’ve figured out your story goal, you need to figure out what exactly your tory conflict is going to be.  Wait, conflict?  This is a character-driven novel.  Yes.  I know.  But still, every good story has conflict.

What is standing between your hero and the story goal?  (It may be just himself, but there has to be something, otherwise the story would be over.)  Whatever this antagonistic force is, your hero will be struggling against it as he struggles toward the story goal.  Conflict.

In a character-driven story, the conflict should be mainly internal.  Your hero is learning things, but he doesn’t know them very well.  And as he changes, he certainly shouldn’t like the things he’s learning.  He should balk at the new things he finds himself wanting to do.  Forgive old Grouch Barnes?  Give a tenth of his paycheck to the church and even more to help the Beeches?  It’s Mr. Beeches’ own fault that he doesn’t have a job.  Right?  RIGHT?

A character-driven novel’s conflict will be more subtle (more internal), but no less compelling than a plot-driven novel’s.

 

Climax

Finally, a character-driven novel will have an internal climax.  A point where your hero’s internal conflict between the old and new self is put to the ultimate test.  Your hero has gone through his journey, learned his lesson, and all was well and good in the world.  But then he had to put what he learned to use.   And probably under some extreme circumstances.

Your climax should be an external test of internal change.  An outward demonstration of inward character.  And when your hero passes he should be officially dubbed kind or forgiving or whatever it was that he learned to be.  His story goal will have been fulfilled and there should be just enough of your book left to show him starting to reach the benefits of his choice before it ends, leaving your audience wanting more.

 

So… what’s the difference?

Wait, an external test of internal change?  What does that even mean?  Is a character-driven story internal or not?  Why are we still talking about external stuff?  Well… the crazy thing is that both types of stories (character and plot-driven) have both internal and external everything.  Plot-driven stories have external and internal conflict.  Character-driven stories relate both external and internal change.

In the end, character and plot-driven stories are two extremes of the same kind of story: a good one.

Here’s what I mean.  In a character-driven novel, the character’s internal conflict causes him to change, which changes his external actions, which begins to rock the boat in his world, which causes external conflict.

Similarly, any good plot-driven protagonist is put into external situations which stretch him, permanently.  Frodo learns how much bigger the world is, and he can’t stay in the Shire when he returns.  Tony Stark learns the value of life and struggles to stop wasting his.  Their external plotlines change them internally.

You can’t have external without internal.  Ever.  Faith without works is dead, people.  If someone changes inside, they’re going to change outside.  And the opposite is also true; one of the criteria of life is being able to respond to stimulus.  Round characters won’t remain static when they are introduced to the new environment of your story world.  It’s impossible.

The point, I think, is to avoid extremes.  A story with only internal or external won’t feel real to your audience.  They want to see internal changes that affect the external world.  They want plot-driven, character-lived stories.  Why?  Because we live goal-driven, people-lived lives, where both the external and the internal are real.  Why would we write stories any other way?

 

P.S. I left a note down in the comments, so check that out too.  😀

Photo: Coffe Cup, N i c o l a, CC BY 2.0


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Brandon

Raised on C.S. Lewis and matured (to whatever extent) on Tolkien, Brandon Miller is a huge fan of Christian speculative fiction. His favorite stories artfully bend the physical reality to reveal spiritual realities which apply to all realms, kingdoms, districts and solar systems (including our own.)
When not writing fiction Brandon spends his time tending his blog The Woodland Quill, sportsing, or just struggling through that last-year-of-high-school/first-year-of-college which is really neither but is definitely both.

Comment

  1. Laura January 12, 2017 at 9:45 AM - Reply

    Ok… I’m not sure if my question is gonna make any sense(words aren’t so easy for me at times – but you’ve experienced that:P), but it’s been bothering me for a LONG time so I’m gonna go ahead and ask:

    Say you’re naturally a character first writer(though I hope to become both) so obviously you’re novel’s ending depends upon the MC having a radical change or revelation. You have your theme in mind

    • Brandon January 12, 2017 at 10:21 AM Reply

      Is the question /do/ you have your theme in mind?
      The answer is (believe it or not) it varies. Sometimes I start a story with an idea of what the theme is, sometimes I don’t. But by the time I get to the end of the book, I need to know. And if I don’t know, I need to start digging into my book to find it. (This is actually what I’m doing with my NaNo right now. It’s a /blast/. #sarcasm) I assume that you are asking because you’re in the middle of a more or less character driven book but you don’t know what your theme is and so you’re not sure how to write you ending. Well……. that’s not a short answer. And maybe I should just write a post, instead of a really, really long comment. 😛 I’ll let you know as soon as I have it done. *nods*

  2. Kate Marie January 11, 2017 at 5:10 PM - Reply

    I’ve never had any formal training in writing, so I never knew the correct terms. This made so much sense, though! Once you pointed it out, it was obvious. Some stories are plot-driven. Some are character-driven.

    Like you said at the end… I want to write books that are both.

    • Brandon January 11, 2017 at 8:10 PM Reply

      Cool, I’m glad I helped clear that up. It can be confusing, especially since they’re all just stories, and the lines are terribly blurry sometimes. Thanks for dropping by and sharing!

  3. Laura January 4, 2017 at 1:49 PM - Reply

    Yes, I’d say Marvel is one of the best I’ve seen when it comes the character driven. HTTYD is great, but I’m not sure the plots would be too interesting if not for the characters.

    • Brandon January 4, 2017 at 6:19 PM Reply

      I’m pretty sure HTTYD would be really boring if not for the characters. (But with the characters… 😀 )

  4. Brandon January 3, 2017 at 9:42 AM - Reply

    Okay, so I wrote a big fat blog post that actually morphed into like three blog posts all about character-driven stories. I hope that they are helpful, at least to some degree. One point that I wanted to make though , that I couldn’t find room for in the posts, is the dangers of sticking your story in a box. Don’t say that it’s character-driven because it’s a quiet, tame sort of novel, and don’t say that it’s plot-driven because things blow up. Those are tendencies of the… (idk, Genres? Story structures? Types?) but they’re not exclusive.
    If you’ve read The Street Lawyer by John Grisham, it’s a perfect example of this. The whole thing starts out with a hostage situation and police snipers and a human bomb and all sorts of boom. But it’s character-driven, and the entire book is just about how the main character reacts to his traumatic experience in the first few chapters.
    Another great example of an ‘explosive’ character driven story is the movie Thor. Thor is actually (mostly) a character-driven story. It doesn’t have a real villain until the end, and Thor’s participation in whatever parts of the movie you could call a ‘plot’ is VERY limited. The entire movie is about Thor learning humility, and then applying it in the end. The story is practically over when Thor barters with Loki for the lives of the Midgardians. Of course there are some fireworks and sparks after that, but Thor’s story is essentially over in that scene because he’s already completed his change from stuck up arrogant snot to humble servant-leader (albeit over the course of a short weekend.)
    So yeah, I think Thor is actually a great place to look for a character-driven story. (I know, nobody else did, but I loved the movie. It really worked for me. Can we get some love for Thor here? And not just because of Loki?)

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