No Hand-Me-Down World: Plot-Driven Vs. Character-Driven

I guess this is the time of year that I start clearing the decks of some ideas that have been kicking around in my head for awhile. This particular entry is something that has been sitting in my to-do pile for a few months now, but I think now is the time! No better time than the present! Other meaningless platitudes!

As you probably deduced from the post title, today I’m talking about Plot-Driven stories versus Character-Driven stories. Quick recap of what the two are according to Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, which  basically says the same thing I had wanted to say in this space:

Plot driven
“In a plot-driven story the events of the story move the story forward and cause the character to react to those events.  Characters are secondary to the plot.  They act in accordance with the plot and do not create events or situations on their own.

In a sense, the plot takes over like a tornado.  If a tornado suddenly comes through a town out of nowhere, the characters can’t stop it; they have to brace themselves and react to what ever happens around them.  They don’t cause the tornado–the tornado causes them to react to it.”

Character driven
“In a character-driven story the character moves the story forward through action and choices.  She initiates the events of the story and causes the events to happen.  Each secene is instigated by the characters within it.

If  a character chooses to stay home one day and work in her garden, no event or situation will stop her from doing so, but another character may try to make her feel guilty for it.  This may cause her to decide not to garden, but it is totally her choice even if it seems like someone else is manipulating her.

If a tornado comes through town, the charcters will always have the time needed to decide what to do.  The focus is in the characters and how and why they make their decisions to stay or leave.  These decisions have the power to move the plot in different directions.  The characters have options and choices that affect the outcome.”

That’s pretty much perfect – I think plot-driven stories have a dense plot, and the characters are often dragged along and forced into a path with no other choice. The original Star Wars trilogy is a good example of this.

I’d say character-driven stories revolve around the characters’ motivations, their decisions, and personalities. Their psychological makeup drives much of how the story operates. What I was talking about on Friday regarding fear being a good character motivator would be best handled in a character-driven story. I think the Star Wars prequels attempted to be this, being centered all around the characters’ choices and motivations, but failed pretty miserably. Most literary fiction, however, is character-driven than plot-driven.

During my college years, though I was focusing on genre fiction, I espoused an approach that entirely focused on the characters in these fantastic settings. So, for example, though I would write about a trio of magicians traveling on a pilgrimage, the rising and falling of the story was driven by their motivations and their interactions rather than things happening to them.

I followed that path all the way up until the early 2000s, when I wrote the novel with the character who went to the artists commune. At that point, I found that having the characters sit in the driver’s seat and make the decisions was resulting in stories that collapsed under their own weight.

This made me into a strict plotter. I completed some novels using that approach – the problem is that, as I’ve noted before, they had little soul and little complexity of psychology within the characters, which is probably my forte. I’m beginning to realize that I’d almost rather write a story that’s terrible but has a soul than something that’s competent but has none.

I think that’s part of why some stories, while not very well-written on the surface, end up so popular: because they have a soul. Look at Harry Potter, for instance. While circumstances in some places do certainly drag Harry along and overall it’s clearly a plot-driven story, you still have your nice little character moments and moments where they interact and make things happen.

Take the circumstances in the Deathly Hallows where they’re not sure where to go and end up at Godric’s Hollow. While the riddles from Dumbledore that are obviously designed to drive the story get them partially there, the rest is handled by them thinking through these riddles and pushing the story forward on their own initiative.

I think this highlights what I’ve been thinking of late: that the hybrid approach, somewhere in between, is the best way to approach a story. Like I was telling my friend Rob the other day I think some stories are more popular because their characters are so realistic. In this particular instance, we were talking about our own internal contradictions. Almost everyone has these internal contradictions. For instance, someone might be very strongly opposed to gay marriage but internally are very curious about homosexuality. Or someone might appear to be a hardass on the outside, but cries at romance movies.

Aside from fueling tension in a story, these contradictions suggest that something more is going on inside – that these people are human and not archetypes. Like I told him, if everyone consistently felt the same thing about all things, they wouldn’t be a person, they would be an archetype. You know, we’re different from moment to moment, much less day to day. You can have a consistency in your internal value system, but there are bound to be inconsistencies at any given moment, and your characters should reflect that.

That’s why I think that a good character-driven story, even in a genre that is predominantly plot-driven, can really grab hold of a reader and draw them in. Yes, the overall story of Harry Potter is interesting, but I think the big hook for people is the characters, because they feel like fully-realized humans. We see Hermione being more than just the stereotype of the nerdy teacher’s pet. We see Harry struggle with his own internal darkness.

That’s why I think stories should blend this approach, because let’s face it. Outside of literary fiction, a plot is pretty important to a story – it can draw the reader forward. If you have something like that and can combine it with good characters? That’s just gold. It’s tricky, but it can be done. It’s a matter of honing the craft and learning how to do it.

I think I’ll talk some about my ideas of how to blend those things in the next entry.

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