Character or Plot-driven Stories?

Many writers may not be aware that there are choices when it comes to how they approach their stories, and not many writers stop to think what kind of story they’re telling. There are, however, two types of story that are often referred to: Plot-driven and Character-driven, and they each serve the story differently.
Most commercial fiction is plot-driven. In other words, the plot and the unfolding events linked to it drive the story forward. The characters revolve around that plot, rather than a secondary plot revolving around the characters.
In character-driven stories, the opposite is true. The unfolding story revolves entirely around the characters and the plot takes a back seat in terms of importance.
But which one should you use?
That depends entirely what you want from your story and the genre you choose. There are advantages and disadvantages to each, so it’s important to not only choose the right one for your story, but to know it’s the right one and that it will fit with the type of story you’re telling.
So what are the differences between them?
Character-driven Stories
In these types of stories, the plot tends to be less developed than the characters. That’s because the emphasis is placed on the personal growth, development and inner turmoil of the main characters, and therefore the plotline is seen as less important.
Character-driven stories are noticeably less action-driven and tend to concentrate on the emotions, sentiment and conflicts and motivations of the main character(s) in relation to the story. They concentrate on internal conflicts and relationships more so than the external conflicts that can be found in plot-driven stories. They tend to use the emotional development and growth of characters to drive the story forward, rather than use a plot to move things along.
These kinds of stories suit certain genres, which is why you will find that romance, fantasy and literary novels are almost certainly character-driven, since there is a heavy emphasis and influence of the character’s inner feelings and emotions that are developed as the story unfolds. Novels such as The Girl on the Train, The Catcher in the Rye, The Kite Runner and Sense and Sensibility are great examples of character-driven stories.
The style and language, in literary fiction in particular, also lends itself to focus completely on the character rather than the crux of the story, simply because there is less need for explosions and guns and all manner of action. The usual fare of commercial fiction is less significant.
The advantages of these stories is that it allows the writer to indulge in their characters; they dictate the story, so the emotional depth and feeling is very well explored, but the downside is that the heart of story – the plot – suffers and doesn’t have as much detail as it should.
Plot-driven Stories
Unlike the sedate charm of character-driven stories, plot-driven stories are focused on the nitty-gritty of the story; the action, the multiple events, incidents and turning points and how they affect the characters, particularly the varied external conflicts and the turmoil they create.
The plot is the focus – it’s about how the story evolves, how sub plots are part of the main story arc and how plot twists help drive the story forward. Whereas the character-driven stories are heavily influenced by emotional development, in plot-driven stories, the action takes centre stage. While characters may be well drawn, these types of stories rely more on the swiftly evolving inner mechanics of the story rather than the characters.
The likes of action thrillers, crime novels, horror, psychological thriller, science-fiction and urban fantasy tend to be plot-driven, such as the Hunger Games, The Da Vinci Code or the Maze Runner.
The advantages of plot-driven stories are that the heart of the story is fully developed, as are the sub-plots and relevant plot twists. This makes for an engaging read. The drawback is that characters may not be as fully realised, certainly not to the thoughtful detail of character-driven stories.
If you want to tell a story from beginning to end in a way that involves the reader with the events, turning points, plot developments, tension, atmosphere and action, then a plot-driven story will be the best choice.
If, however, you want your story to focus on the inner feelings, conflicts, aspirations, goals and tensions as the character progresses on their journey of discovery, then a character-driven story is the best choice.
But isn’t it possible you have a mix of both? 
In truth, many novels do achieve this. They tend to be neither one nor the other and are often balanced with some thoughtful plotting and deep character analysis, but on the whole, most novels fall into either category in the way they are written.
The genre and type of novel you want to write tends to dictate the style of the plot, so it’s wise to think about what exactly you want from your story. If you really want to focus of your characters, then it will be character drive. If you’re a plotter, then it’s very likely you’ll create a plot-driven novel. The choice is yours, but choose carefully.

Next week: The Problem with Emotion


  1. Good insights here. However, I can't recall a character-driven fantasy tale. What fantasy tales did you have in mind?

    1. Hi Mike,

      Lord of the Rings? Totally character driven. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? The Golden Compass, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Watership Down, to name but a few. They're all character-driven, or heavily character-centric.


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