Plot-Driven vs. Character-Driven Stories

plot-driven explosionI would guess that most readers don’t really want to analyze the stories they read; they just want to sink into them and enjoy them. I don’t know anyone who deliberately chooses a book based on whether it’s a plot-based story or a character-based story. So what’s the difference and why does it matter?

A plot-driven story is, generally speaking, about an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds is a plot-based story. It’s about a very average Englishman who suddenly finds himself in the unfathomable situation of dodging Martians bent on human destruction. The man is forced to make his way across a war-torn land, struggling to avoid the Martians, help others if he can, and find a way to survive. The man himself could be any man or everyman. In this kind of story, the exterior action affects and drives the interior struggle of the character, his emotions and decisions.

A character-driven story is quite different. It’s more about an extraordinary person who may live in very ordinary conditions. The conflict in a character-based story is almost always internal, yet it drives the exterior action. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a character-based story about a very unusual man (or men) whose very nature sets the stage for conflict. Dr. Jekyll must deal with his own emotions at the same time as he is dealing with the consequences of Mr. Hyde’s actions.

In a recent discussion of a plot-driven book with a friend, I mentioned the emotional character arc (or lack thereof) and my friend asked, “Isn’t that only in a character-driven book?” Well, yes and no.

Although each type of story relies largely on a certain kind of action — exterior action in a plot-based story and interior action in a character-based story — both types contain at least the possibility of the two separate layers of story arcs. What I find lacking in so many plot-based books is the arc of the protagonist’s emotional growth, particularly in series. I’ve recently read a few books in an action/adventure series, and while I’ve enjoyed the stories, I’ve realized that they have very little soul to them. They remind me of a season of hour-long TV dramas where the main character starts out at the top of the hour, searches out or is drawn into a mystery, intrigue or conflict, solves the conflict (but not without setbacks and surprises) and finishes the hour emotionally as the same character he was when it started, ready to begin the next installment. While the main character may learn things along the way about his adversary, a secret group, maybe little-known history, he does not, usually, learn much new about himself. The whole point of the show is to bring the character full circle so he can reset and start at ground zero for the next episode.

Granted, someone who is looking for the latest James Bond novel (by whomever) and not finding it is probably not going to default to Louisa May Alcott or Jane Austen. Okay, I get that. But there’s no rule that says a plot-based action/adventure can’t have some emotional growth along the way. I tend to think that the more layers a story has, the more interesting it is. What do you think? Am I asking too much? Is it enough just to have a roller coaster ride? Or do you like your characters with a dash of insight, as well?

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

22 thoughts on “Plot-Driven vs. Character-Driven Stories”

  1. I lean strongly to character based stories, both in writing and in reading. That said, every story has to have something to move those characters along. As you say, most books have strong elements of both.

  2. I agree with your original statement. People don’t usually analyze. So if they are the type of person who likes character-driven stories, then like Melissa, they will read most action-adventure series and find the characters “flat and uninteresting,” like TV serials and comic books. People who like a lot of action will find character-driven stories (like mine) “slow.” Genre labelling really helps readers choose, because genres are based on this sort of broad analysis.
    The key points for writers:
    1. If you want to appeal to everyone, have a balance of each, but you’re going to lose a few readers who want only one or the other. If you care 🙂
    2. Get your genres straight in your marketing, so the people who are going to like your book will get a chance to read it, and those who won’t like it won’t buy it and be disappointed.

    1. Gordon, you have really hit the nail on the head. You’ve broken down this discussion into very salient points, points I hadn’t really considered when I wrote the post. I think you’re dead on about how readers react to the two types of stories, and the fact that something in the middle ground could appeal to many, but not all. Thanks for adding to the discussion. I think you’ve shed new light on my muddied mess.

  3. I would say a plot-driven story is less indicative of the human condition, whereas a character-driven story is an open display, via the dialog and action of the character, of it.

  4. As a romance novelist, my stories are always character-driven. Everything that Gordon said is true. Since I write cross-genre fiction, it’s not always easy to find the right audience…

  5. Interesting concept – character growth in a plot-driven story?

    What about my book? Fifty-something police officer searches for an abducted child. He finds her, loses her kidnappers, and hunts for them before they can strike.

    The story moves between England and France and back to England, and takes place over a five day period. If I added emotional growth to the plot, the poor detective would never find his man/men. 🙂

    Admittedly, there is emotional growth (and decay) in the proposed ten-book series, but I’m yet to write the fourth book.

    Basically, what I’m saying is that emotional growth in a plot-driven story is probably too much to ask, unless you’re writing a tome as long as War and Piece. 🙂

    1. Kerry, I hear you–it’s a different kind of arc. But the plot of your story reminds me of the movie Tombstone. In the first half, it’s definitely plot-driven yet in the second half, after Morg’s death, Wyatt goes on his killing spree and reaches his epiphany at Holliday’s deathbed. In this instance, I believe, the two story arcs work together seamlessly, so it is possible. But yeah, you may have to write a bruiser doorstop to get it all in.

  6. I believe it depends partially on the length of the TV show or story. It’s unlikely to see a character in a long-running series change much over the course of an hour show, which is often based on a few days or hours of a person’s life. Ditto for a character in a series of books.

    In a piece of flash fiction, the author might not show any character development at all, opting for economy of words and action.

    In the end, it depends on the author’s intentions and the desires of readers.

  7. Another excellent point, Kathy. Many action/adventures take place over a very short period of time, hardly time enough for a character to do a lot of soul-searching. You guys are good! Obviously I am asking too much by wanting more character arc in action stories.

  8. I’m grateful for some of these comments. My first novel, which I cringe at the thought of anyone reading because it’s plot-driven James Bond-ish silliness, takes place over a two-week period – so that does make it a little difficult for there to be any substantial character development. That makes me feel a *little* better. But I still think the book sucks. 😀

  9. Indeed, great novels offer both external and internal action. I love them. Above all because every time I reread one of them I notice something new and different.

  10. This has me very confused. After five memoir books, each of which had a definite story to tell, I’m not sure whether they were plot or character driven. The first one, Bride Price, was about how the marriage of my foster daughter was arranged in the Congo jungle. That’s clearly plot. But it was also about a variety of unusual and very definite characters (I was merely a bit part player in the tale) whose participation was essential for the story to unfold. So what t character or plot based? I don’t know.

    I could say the same for my second book, Ma n in a Mud Ht, which was about a colleague who came to Africa for the first time and suffered terrible culture shock. There was more to the tale than that, of course, but it was the characters who populated my village and others with whom he interacted that gave this story substance. So was it plot or character based?

    You’ve given me a lot to think about, as usual, Melissa. Thanks.

    1. Ian, I think you’ve raised a good point in that many books can hover over the line or straddle it, making them difficult to categorize. By your descriptions, I would think your assessment is correct. I know the biography I wrote of my aunt’s experience as a prisoner-of-war was definitely plot-driven, as the experience of war was the impetus, but it was also about her character and how she responded to what happened to her. So it’s tough sometimes to tease this out. Another interesting thought to add to the discussion.

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