Plot-Driven Vs. Character-Driven Stories: What’s Better?
People talk a lot about “plot-driven” and “character-driven” books, but what exactly does that mean, and which one makes a better story? Ultimately, the answer depends on who you are as a reader (or writer), but personally, I like stories that have a good mix of both, and I think a lot of other readers would probably agree with me.
The Difference Between Character- and Plot-Driven Books
A purely plot-driven book is one that focuses almost entirely on action. Things are happening, and characters have to make quick decisions to move the story along. There isn’t much time for introspective thoughts and there is very little exploration of emotions.
These kinds of books are often great page-turners because there is little or no time for the readers (or the characters) to breathe. The story pushes you ever onward until you finally get the release at the end. However, if a plot-driven author isn’t careful, they run the risk of their characters being little more than stick figures playing a role.
Essentially, if a book’s story would stay pretty much the same after you switched out the characters for different people, that’s a plot-driven book.
Character-driven books, on the other hand, focus more on the characters’ emotions and their internal struggles. Most of the time, books that are super character-driven don’t have much of a plot. Or at least, the plot is less external. Instead, the story explores the characters’ internal worlds and the plot is driven by relationships between characters.
If plot-driven books are known for being fast-paced and exciting, then character-driven books are known for having rich, deep characters that feel like real people. However, they can also be boring to a reader, making it seem like nothing ever happens.
Is It Better for a Story to Be Character- or Plot-Driven?
The answer to that question really depends on who you are. Some people adore literary fiction novels, or other types of stories where not a lot happens, but you dive deep into a particular character’s psyche and get to understand them on a level that you may not even understand yourself.
Other people, by contrast, come to books for a thrill, and the characters are ancillary to that. They care more about the twists and turns than the people who are being carried along those twists and turns.
Personally, I think it’s better to have a balance. There should be a plot, but that plot should be dictated by the characters’ needs and wants. If the plot just acts on the characters, it’ll seem like they have no real stakes in what’s happening. And if that’s the case, then why should I as a reader care about what’s happening, either?
Likewise, if a book spends pages and pages with a character just thinking about things but not doing anything, I’m going to get bored very quickly.
Most genre books, I think, try to go for that happy medium. The plot and characters in these kinds of stories are inextricably tied because the turns of the plot are both exciting and relate directly to the characters’ internal struggles.
These kinds of books don’t just hop from one action scene to the next. Instead, they give both the characters and the reader time to process what is happening and grow.
How Do You Find That Happy Medium?
As someone who does some writing in my free time, I know that finding that balance between character and plot is not easy. Some writers are just naturally more inclined to write character-driven stories and others are more inclined to write plot-driven ones.
The type of story you like to write may be related to how much prep you do before you start. Pantsers start with a vague idea and let the characters take the reins, leading to a much more character-focused story. Outliners, on the other hand, start with a story and then drop characters into it.
I think that’s the reason why ultimately, a lot of authors do a hybrid of plotting and pantsing. For example, Brandon Sanderson has said that he is a major outliner, but that he discovery writes his characters.
If you’re a writer and you want to find a better balance between being plot-driven and character-driven, I think one of the best things to do is what I was talking about earlier: tie your plot into your characters’ history or personality in some way. Maybe the main villain is the main character’s former best friend, or the inciting incident involves a loved one getting kidnapped.
Whatever it is, find a way to make the events of the plot personal to the characters. That way they actually care about what’s going on, and the reader will, too.
What are your thoughts? Do you prefer plot-driven novels? Character-driven? A mix? Sound off in the comments below!