Writers often ask me which type they should attempt to write, however, I always answer that the approach to writing is always subjective. In other words, it really is up to the writer, but on the whole, it depends on what kind of story you’re trying to tell because there is a distinction between the two. One kind may be more suited to the type of genre you are writing for.
New writers may not be aware of such distinctions, and may not know the differences between the two forms.
The most important thing to remember is that neither of these elements is right or wrong. Not all novels are 100% plot driven or 100% character driven. For the most part, they have a mix of both character and plot driven elements. How they balance is entirely up to the writer.
What is a Plot driven story?
A plot driven story concentrates almost entirely on the events or situations within the story and it focuses on how the characters influence those events or situations, usually through action. The story is not solely centered on its characters, but often relies on the unfolding events within its context to drive the story forward and bring it to its conclusion.
In plot driven stories (more suited to crime novels or various thriller/adventure genres), the focus remains on the events within the story, usually a single main event such as a death, a battle, an accident, a kidnap etc. The story, the characters and subplots revolve around this single event to being the story to life.
The characters in a plot-driven novels don’t tend to be as deeply drawn as those in character driven novels (for obvious reasons), since the fast pace of most plot driven novels means there isn’t much time to delve too deeply on an emotional level with your protagonist and antagonist and other characters, but that’s not to say that characters in these types of novels are not three dimensional and believable and make us empathise with them, because they are and they do, however most plot driven stories don’t really have time for deep character reflection. The emphasis is on pace and action.
Novels such as The Da Vinci Code, The Bourne Identity, Jurassic Park, The Hunt for Red October and Golden Compass are examples of plot driven novels.
What is a character driven story?
This really is a case of something doing exactly what it says on the tin. These stories are all about the characters. The emphasis is on character reflection, emotions, desires, motives, and subsequent actions. The story tends to be a secondary element, the plot tends to be somewhere in the background and is not strictly enforced like a plot driven novel. This type of novel also tends to be more reflective and slower in pace. This means that the writer can concentrate solely on characterisation.
You’ll find that most - not all - literary novels tend to be character driven. This is because they focus on the character’s emotions, their desires and their reflections and that means that the development and growth of the characters outweighs the development and growth and the movement of the plot. These stories tend to focus on why characters do what they do, and how they react in certain ways through their actions.
Novels such as Catcher in the Rye, War and Peace, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Shawshank Redemption and The Hours are just some examples of character driven stories.
Can you have both?
The simple answer to that is yes. There are no hard and fast rules that state you must have one or the other. A good writer can incorporate both elements into their work, as in the example above with King’s The Shawshank Redemption, so in theory you can have a fast paced thriller that does have emotional, reflective character driven scenes, and literary-style character driven stories that can have moments of action which propel the plot forward.
The ideal would be to have a balance of both, and this is quite possible as longs as you maintain that balance. If you do have a plot driven story, don't forget good characterisation, because this is still extremely important in any story. A great plot is nothing without great characters, and great characters still need a plot to work from.
Most stories do follow a pattern that we all know, and the genre generally dictates the type of novel: thrillers, crime, sci-fi and adventure books tend to be plot driven, while romantic genres, coming of age novels or semi-autobiographical novels tend to be character driven, and as you write your novel it will become apparent where your story fits when it comes to plot driven, character driven or a mix of both.
One thing will be apparent as you begin your writing journey – you need to be clear on the type of novel you want to write. You need to find your ‘voice’, your writing fingerprint that makes you stand out from other writers. Once you have those, then you’ll know the kind of fiction you’ll want to write.
Next time: Contemporary v literary.