Character-driven vs. Plot-driven Stories

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Is your story plot-driven or character-driven? Let’s break it down. If your story arc builds towards a final event or outcome of the plot, it’s plot-driven. If your story revolves around the overall growth and change of the main character, your story is character-driven. However, the two are intricately interwoven and your story should reflect an even balance of both.

A good writer balances both the character and the plot.

By examining these two styles separately, this post should help identify which style you lean towards. Hopefully, you can examine areas of strength in your writing and thereby identify areas for growth going forward. Do you lean too heavily on your plot? Maybe examine the arcs of your characters. Do you focus only on the internal struggles of your main character? Maybe take a look at your plot structure and give it a boost.

Which style drives you to start a project?

Plot-driven

You start your writing project by building worlds, crafting a diabolical plan, or being an architect of the big picture. Sound familiar? Your inclination is plot-driven.

Character-driven

Find yourself creating profiles of characters? Enjoy delving into the human psyche to poke around at the soft, secret bits of human nature? You’re a character-driven writer.

These are just two ways to start a project. It’s how you finish your story that matters. Let’s examine this whole duality a bit further …

Genre Fiction, by nature, is plot-driven.

Thrillers, mysteries, sci-fi, and romance tend to have a formula–prevent the crime from happening, solve the mystery, save the world, smooches surround a happily-ever-after ending. You can search “<insert genre name here> formula” and find many articles detailing the correct way to write a specific genre. They all lean towards building a solid plot.

However, be aware of the internal plot and the external plot.

No story is much of a story without a decent character arc. The main character needs to grow, evolve, and doubt themselves. Then they become something new. They are, in essence, a proverbial phoenix rising from their own ashes. This character arc is the internal plot. The external plot is all the other stuff the character is dealing with. You know, the end of the world, or the mysterious death of a distant relative and the resulting inherited, yet spooky, house. You get the picture.

Luke Skywalker was a whiny baby at the beginning of Star Wars: A New Hope. By the time we see him in Return of the Jedi, he’s a poised man, calmly, and reluctantly, wielding a lightsaber against his own father. His growth from awkward youth to mature Jedi is the internal plot of Star Wars. The external plot has a whole lot to do with saving the known universe from an imperial overlord.

Note: This is an extremely reductive definition of the great Star Wars saga, and I do realize that I am glossing over the other amazing sub-characters and plots. Please forgive me.

However, one plot informs the other.

In Star Wars, both the internal and external plots run like two streams into a raging river–it’s nearly impossible to decipher one from the other once the journey begins. The same is true of your writing. Once you begin with one strand of your overall story, the characters will automatically chart the course of the plot, and vice versa. When your story is finished, no one will know where you started.

The Exception: Literary Fiction

Just like everything else in the English language, there’s always an exception to the rule. It is common in literary fiction for the story to be primarily character-driven. The growth and subsequent change of a character’s emotional journey is often the primary focus of literary fiction.

The Bottom Line

Identify which style you favor and be sure to examine ways in which you can elevate your abilities in the latter. In the end, your story will benefit from your newly balanced abilities.

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About Author

Heather Rigney is a fiction writer, blogger, journalist, and art teacher based in Rhode Island. Author of The Merrow Trilogy--a dark, historical fantasy novel that deals with homicidal mermaids, the colonial suppression of women, and a present-day alcoholic funeral director trying to make sense of it all. Her writing has been featured in Motif Magazine and Stone Crowns Magazine. By day she teaches art at an all-girls Quaker school and at night she tries to be creative while avoiding too many sweets. You can read more about Ms. Rigney on her website: www.heatherrigney.com

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