Navigating the Roadway of Character-Driven versus Plot-Driven Novels
You’ve probably heard the terms plot-driven versus character-driven stories and maybe wondered what they mean. Like a lot of things in writing, it can be tricky to define because the lines between the two are often blurred. And what feels like a plot-driven story to one person might feel like a character-driven story to another.
Which is all a little confusing.
In the most basic terms, a plot-driven story is one where the plot moves the characters, while a character-driven story is one where the characters drive the plot. It sounds simple enough, and it kind of is, but also has a bit more to it than that.
In this article, we’ll break it down a bit more.
Let’s start by talking about plot-driven stories and what they are. Plot-driven stories revolve around a central conflict, with the protagonist's actions and decisions driving the story forward. These stories tend to be fast-paced, with a clear focus on the events that unfold rather than character development or introspection.
While there are many different elements that can make for a successful plot-driven story, there are several key factors that are essential to creating a compelling one.
First and foremost, a plot-driven story needs a strong and well-defined central conflict. This conflict should be introduced early on in the story and should be significant enough to drive the protagonist's actions.
Whether the conflict is external (such as a battle against a rival army) or internal (such as a struggle with addiction), it should be clear and compelling enough to keep your readers engaged and ultimately invested in the outcome.
I mean, all stories need these, but you need strong, well-developed characters. Even if the plot is amazing, it only matters if it’s happening to people your reader cares about and can root for.
They should have their own motivations, desires, and flaws, and should be capable of making their own decisions that might impact the narrative. A plot-driven story should never feel like a series of events happening to characters who have no agency or control.
Another important element of a plot-driven story is pacing. Because these stories tend to be fast-paced and action-oriented, it's essential they move quickly, but also not too fast that your reader can’t catch their breath.
This means that each scene should serve a clear purpose and there should be a sense of urgency and momentum that pulls your reader along by the narrative. Each new development should ratchet up the tension, making everyone eager to find out what happens next.
Finally, a plot-driven story should have a clear and satisfying resolution. While there may be loose ends or unanswered questions, readers should still feel as though the conflict has been resolved in a meaningful way. This could mean the protagonist achieves their goal, learn a valuable lesson, or undergo a significant personal transformation.
Whatever the outcome, it should feel earned and satisfying and should leave your readers feeling as though they have been on a journey.
In contrast to a plot-driven story, a character-driven story is one that places a bigger emphasis on the internal conflicts and personal growth of the protagonist. Rather than focusing solely on external events and action, a character-driven story delves deep into the psyche of the protagonist, exploring their motivations, desires, and fears.
Fully Realized Protagonist
At the heart of a character-driven story is a fully realized protagonist who is complex and nuanced. The protagonist should be a three-dimensional character with strengths and weaknesses, flaws and virtues. They should have a clear and compelling arc that involves growth and change over the course of the narrative.
The protagonist's internal struggles and emotional journey should be the driving force behind the story, and readers should feel invested in their outcome. Without this, it’s pretty hard to write a good character-driven story, so take the time to understand this character.
Focus on Relationships
One of the key elements of a successful character-driven story is a focus on relationships. Because the protagonist's internal journey is so central to the narrative, the relationships they have with other characters should have weight. These relationships should serve to challenge the protagonist, provide support and guidance, or reveal new aspects of their personality.
By exploring the protagonist's interactions with others, you can show a deeper understanding of who your main character is and what motivates them.
Just like with a plot-driven story, pacing matters in character-driven ones, too. You don’t have the action-packed plotting to rely on here though, so you need to find the balance between explorative introspection and moving the narrative forward. The pacing should be slow enough to allow for that introspection and character development, but also fast enough to keep readers engaged and invested in the outcome.
In a character-driven story, the resolution can be a little different. While you absolutely want to show some kind of growth and the conclusion of a complete character arc, you can also leave the ending a little more vague in a character-driven story.
For a primer on different types of endings, visit this link, because there are some types of endings that leave open-ended questions that might be suitable for your book. Nevertheless, no matter how you end it, you should leave your readers with some sense of closure.
Should I Write a Plot or Character-Driven Story?
Deciding whether to write a plot-driven or character-driven story ultimately depends on what you feel most comfortable with and what kind of story you want to tell. Both approaches have their strengths and can be effective in different ways.
If you enjoy creating intricate plots and exploring exciting, action-packed events, a plot-driven story might be the way to go. These stories tend to be more focused on external events and the twists and turns of the plot, and can be particularly effective in genres such as thrillers, mysteries, and science fiction.
On the other hand, if you are more interested in exploring the internal lives of your characters and their emotional journeys, a character-driven story may be a better fit. These stories tend to be more introspective, focusing on the inner conflicts and emotional journeys of the protagonist. They can be particularly effective in genres such as literary fiction, romance, and coming-of-age stories.
Ultimately though, any story you tell likely has some elements of each, even if the overall narrative leans a certain way. I can think of countless novels that rely on both plot and character to tell an awesome story, it just depends on what you enjoy writing and reading and what your story needs.
Think of some of the books you love—what do you remember about them? The character journey or the exciting plot? What aspects of them resonated for you and what elements do you want to emulate in your own work?
Examples of Plot-Driven Stories
We couldn’t leave this article without giving you some suggestions of some books that are plot-driven. If you’re trying to decide which style of story is right for you, check some of these and see how they feel for you.
- The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin: This urban fantasy follows a group of individuals who embody different parts of New York City as they fight against an interdimensional threat.
- The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett: In this literary story, twin sisters who grew up in a small, Black community in the 1950s take different paths in life, one passing as white and the other staying in the community.
- The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates: This historical fiction novel follows a young enslaved man with a supernatural power as he joins the Underground Railroad and seeks to free his family.
- There There by Tommy Orange: Follow a diverse cast of characters as they prepare for a powwow in Oakland, California, exploring themes of identity, history, and violence against Native Americans.
- The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang: A fantasy book set in a fictionalized version of China follows a young woman who rises from poverty to attend a prestigious military academy and become a powerful warrior.
- The Deep by Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes: This novella follows the story of the descendants of pregnant enslaved women who were thrown overboard during the Middle Passage and turned into mermaids.
Examples of Character-Driven Stories
And of course, here are some ideas for character-driven novels you might want to take a look at.
- Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson: This literary novel follows a multigenerational Black family in Brooklyn, exploring themes of identity, class, and parenthood.
- The Mothers by Brit Bennett: In this novel a young Black woman in a tight-knit church community in Southern California navigates a complex love triangle and confronts the consequences of her decisions.
- On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong: A letter from a Vietnamese-American son to his illiterate mother, exploring themes of love, family, and identity.
- The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi: Follow the story of a Nigerian teenager struggling to come to terms with their gender identity and the impact of their death on their family and community.
- An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: This novel follows a young Black couple whose marriage is tested when the husband is wrongfully convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison.
Whether you’re writing a plot or character driven novel, you’ll want to keep track of all those characters, story beats, plot points, and everything in between to help achieve that perfect pacing and that satisfying ending. Dabble is the perfect tool to do all of that with its Notes and Story Grid functions that makes writing your novel a breeze.
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