Who Drives: Plot or Character?

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Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you draw up detailed chapter notes before ever starting a first draft? Maybe you find it’s easier to just jump in with your characters and see where they go. Which is the right way to write? Is there a wrong way? The truth is, we’ve been taught to see a dichotomy between plot and characters that isn’t as stark as you believe.

Finding the Balance

The divide between plot-driven and character-driven storytelling has been sensationalized beyond all reason, scaring writers into thinking they must somehow pick one over the other. In truth, good characters and good plots feed on each other and grow. All good plots are character-driven, and all good characters are inexorably bound to the plot.

Dedicate development time to both of these key elements. Flesh out your characters and always keep your plot simmering in the back of your mind. Your characters will grow into the plot, and their roots may determine the story’s direction.

Flexibility and Inspiration

Even if you like to plot out every detail of your story in advance, fully rounded characters should surprise you at some point. Maybe they don’t want to do the thing you’re pushing them towards. Maybe they decided to do something unexpected. This is a good thing. Do not panic. Flexibility and inspiration come hand in hand. You will never know what wonderful opportunities you missed if you ignore what your characters have to say.

Writing is an exercise in flexibility. Even if you really, really like your plot, be ready to make changes. This is how the best stories come to be. You get an idea, you get your characters, then you shake well and watch the drama spark. The more time you spend with your characters, the more you may realize there is an even better way for the plot to angle, or a fabulous new depth to underline the primary action.

Be Honest about Your Characters

The biggest problem with so-called ‘plot-driven’ narratives is that all too often writers break and bend their characters to suit their plots. They forget the primary rule of both plots and character development, however: your characters’ drives are everything. A story is just the struggle your character endures on their way to their goal. If you are not true to who your characters are just to fit a specific plot point, your story will feel forced and unauthentic. People want to empathize with your characters. If they spend a whole book learning to understand your characters and you reward them with a dishonest warping of those characters, they won’t finish your story with great pleasure. They may not even finish it at all.

Your characters are your plot, and your plot is your characters. Don’t worry too much about sticking to an outline or whether your story is driven by plot or characters. Be flexible and be honest with your characters. Their motivations will only make your story stronger, no matter how much you enjoy a good outline.


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  1. Your focus actually depends a bit on your audience. Plot focus narratives are fine if you want your reader to put themselves in the narrative. Like Bella Swan or Neo, they don’t have defining characteristics, and almost no character development, because they are a blank slate for readers to experience the plot.
    However, stories can focus on character, in order to get people engaged in more common or mundane scenarios. An interesting enough character can spend the day shopping people will actually be interested in what they bought.

  2. This is so true. Once I planned to write a character entirely out of the story at a specific point. She refused to go, and I couldn’t make her.

    When your characters speak to you, listen up!

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