The Difference between character-driven and plot-driven

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What’s the difference between character-driven and plot-driven?

A few months ago I was at a mini-conference dedicated to preparing for NaNoWriMo. Author after published author got up on stage to deliver all kinds of writing advice.

Right after a particularly earnest presentation on traditional 3-act plot structure, the next speaker rose up to the microphone.

“Well, that was… informative,” she said. “I don’t know much about that, myself. I never plot my stories. All my books are completely character-driven.”

What? I blinked at this. Not only did she seem to have no idea what character-driven and plot-driven mean, but her tone definitely conveyed that she felt character-driven books were superior to plot-driven books.

I might have let this remark pass by as some kind of fluke, if every other subsequent presentation weren’t accompanied by sentiments of, “My work is somehow better because I don’t plot! My work is character-driven!”

After a while, I seriously felt like they were trying to outdo each other. Everyone wanted to make it known that their books weren’t plot-driven.

This is just plain silly, not to mention misinformed.

Whether your book is plot-driven or character-driven is judged by the completed work itself and not the process you used to write it. 

Gene Wilder, Willy Wonka, The Writersaurus. NaNoWriMo, character-driven vs. plot-driven, writing, character driven plots, plot driven plots, character-driven plots, plot-driven plots, the difference between character-driven and plot-driven, the difference between character driven and plot driven

In other words, plotting your novel does not mean that it is plot-driven, and “pantsing”  your story does not mean you’ll have a character-driven novel. Or vice versa.

Neither is one better than the other. But what is the difference between character-driven and plot-driven?

The difference between character-driven and plot-driven Plots

The problem with the views of the above writers is that they equated pre-plotting with having a plot-driven novel, and letting your characters run amok with your plot as having a character-driven novel.

This is, of course, a shoddy way of thinking, because your writing is never judged by your process, but by the final product itself.

So how do you tell the difference between character-driven and plot-driven plots?

The Character-driven/plot-driven spectrum

The answer is not as straight-forward as many would like to believe. This is not a line-in-the-sand situation with character-driven plots on one side and plot-driven ones on the other.

It’s actually more of a spectrum, with some stories falling closer to one side then the others, and many more closer to the middle – a classic bell curve. Generally, ‘literary’ fiction tends to fall closer to the character-driven side, and genre-fiction – such as romance, horror, thriller, science fiction, and fantasy – tends toward the plot-driven side.

This spectrum is why it’s so hard – and sometimes silly – to classify a work as either character- or plot-driven.

ALL good stories are driven by both character AND plot.

savvy?

One simple question

If you’re still trying to figure out where your story falls on the spectrum, ask yourself this:

What keeps your readers reading? 

Is it to find out what happens to a particular character? Or is it simply to see what happens next? Do they turn the page because they just have to know how a particular romantic relationship ends, or do they want to know how the hero stops the seemingly unstoppable alien invasion?

You may – and possibly should – find that your story is driven by character in some parts, and plot in others.

And that’s the way it should be.

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H. Duke

H. Duke writes contemporary fantasy, horror, and more. She currently lives in Tempe, Arizona with her husband, Giru, and a shiny black dog named Jupiter. Her weird west serial Jeremiah Jones Cowboy Sorcerer is being released in eight episodes (sort of like a TV show, but for your e-reader!). you can get the first four episodes here.


1 comment for “The Difference between character-driven and plot-driven

  1. October 5, 2016 at 9:31 PM

    In plot-driven novels, the characters are usually forced to make quick decisions and, as a result, the development of the characters takes a back seat to the rapidly evolving story.

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