Plotting the Characters or Driving the Plot?


Speaking of which, have we discussed whether you find your work character-driven or plot-driven? And, any commonalities among the characters who aren’t working quite right yet?

No we haven’t, oh gentle readers.

The reasons is that the difference between the two (character-driven vs. plot-driven) is hard to define. There is not clear break between them. All stories have characters and plot.  The most common definition for each term goes as follows:

1) Character-driven story: A story which is defined by the actions of the characters.

2)Plot-driven story: A story which goes from one plot point to the next.

Simple, yet not all too clear, which sort of defeats its simplicity.

Let’s start with #2, plot-driven stories. Generally, these are stories in which events outside of the characters control drive the story, such as war, natural phenomenon, and the like. The characters tend to go from one plot point to the next, reacting to these events.Think of a story set on a river, with the characters encountering all manner of obstacles such as white water, rapids, falls, rocks, bears, etc. The characters react to each one in turn but they do not have control of either the flow of the river nor what they will encounter next.

In character-driven stories it is the actions of the characters that determine where the story goes next. Think of the characters on a long road trip. They plan the trip, decide which route to take, and plan rests stops.

The tricky thing is that each one has elements of the other. The characters on the river may decide to beach their boat and try their hand at overland travel. The characters on the road trip may camp out for the night on the woods and be attacked by a bear.  A story may start one way or the other and change or jump to the other, or as I like to think of it, slide from one end to the other.

Because this is not an either/or proposition (in most cases), it’s a sliding scale.  Stories lean one way or the other but rarely are they purely one OR the other. I like to start my stories with a significant plot point, what Joseph Campbell called “The Call to Adventure”.  But after the “hero” sets down the path of adventure his actions determine his path. Also I like to have reasons for why things happen in a story and I like those reasons to be based on the actions of the characters. It’s no fun (at least for me) to have the characters bounce from one end of the narrative to the other as merely spectators that push a button here or there from time to time.

Another question is, do the actions of the antagonists fall under plot points or are they character actions?

I mean the term is “character-driven” not “hero-driven”, which means that if the villain is a living, breathing person, his or her actions drive the story as much as the heroes do if not more. My second book has the heroes and villains acting and reacting to each others moves which slides it toward the character side of the scale as opposed to plot side, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t drop certain plot points as I need them.

So in the end, as far as I am concerned, I lean toward the character side, but i stay firmly within the boundaries of the scale.

I hope that answers your question Sputnitsa.

And now for some music from U2:

7 comments on “Plotting the Characters or Driving the Plot?

  1. My characters’ actions drive the plot. What they do, or don’t do, affects the story.

    Good question, and I enjoyed reading your answer.


  2. Hey Ralfast! Great post. It’s such an interesting question. You make me want to tackle it myself 🙂


  3. […] Plot driven stories prefer the first option as well. You don’t have to worry about the motivations of the Big Bad who is a murdering fount of madness. Of course you have to be careful that you don’t stumble over unfortunate implications if your evil race shares too many cultural markers with real world religion or ethnicity.Easily avoided by making them monstrous or outerworldy. […]


  4. I am disgusted by character-driven stuff.
    In addition to those two, there are also milieu-driven and idea-driven stories.


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