Character versus Plot Driven Stories

Characterization is something I have to tackle all of the time with my editorial clients. It's something many of my clients want help improving. Even clients who feel like they have a reasonable–or even good grasp–on their characters will look for more ways to make these people real.

I'm going to begin with a very simplified explanation of the difference between character-driven stories and plot-driven stories:

Plot-Driven Stories:

Because this happenedthis character experienced that.

Character-driven Stories:

Because this character did thisthat happened. And because that happenedthis happened to this character.

Public Service Announcement: These are my opinions, and they come with no legitimate authority or references. This is my take on it, and my opinions, and I encourage you to use your head and come to your own conclusions.

Second Public Service Announcement: This post rambles, goes off topic, and somehow, once again, fixates on one of my favorite characters in modern literature.

Some of you may be nodding. Others may be confused. If you're nodding, you probably understand everything I'm about to go into here. If not, keep reading. The rest of this post is going to focus on the specifics… and really, what is written above does cover everything.

This Character can be a villain or protagonist. So long as a character in the book is the one influencing the plot and creating the plot, you have a character-driven story. The first ‘this character' doesn't have to be the second ‘this character'. An antagonist can take the first action, thus impacting the protagonist.

That's character-driven.

If stuff happens to the character because you're bored with the story and nothing is happened… you probably have a plot-driven story.

Characters come first. And because characters come first, the novel is richer because they're directly facing the consequences of their own actions. And others can face the consequences of a character's actions. That's perfectly fine.

On to the lengthy (and quite possibly unnecessary) explanation:

Green is characters. Blue is specific events. All red words are there to draw attention to the order things happen. This and that are the progress of events, experiences, and so on.

In plot-drive stories, events happen to characters. Characters come after and second to the event. Things happen to them.

While there will be times and plots where things happen to characters, it shouldn't be often. There's one time I can think of where this should happen–character versus environment plot lines. A volcano erupting is a good example of this. Unless a character caused the volcano to erupt, it is a situation-driven plot. Then the character-driven plot should take over as the character deals with the problem.

Storms, as well as other environmental factors outside of any character's control, also fall into this category.

For now, though, we'll pretend these don't exist. Most plot lines should be character driven.

Even if that character happens to be the bad guy. 

Now, I'm going to dive into the most important part of this explanation, in my opinion:

Why are character-driven stories so important?

I don't know about everyone else, but I read novels because I want to read about the people in the books. If I wanted to know just about the events in the books, I'd find a spoiler site, sorta like the ones they have for movies.

It'd save me a lot of reading time, that's for certain.

Characters are what interest me, not necessarily plot. However, good characters create interesting plots. Good doesn't mean ‘good' in the sense of good and evil, but rather ‘strong and engaging.'

Not everyone is going to agree with this… and that's where personal tastes come into play. Some people want plot-driven stories.

Many, however, want to read about the characters.

I've been talking about The Dresden Files quite a bit lately. Why? Because I love Harry. He's such an engaging, interesting character. The plot is secondary to me finding out what Harry is up to and if he lives and oh my gosh did that really happen to Harry? Noooooooo, Harry! Don't do that, stupid!

I care about Harry Dresden.

(I say as I fan myself off because oh boy is Harry a nice bad boy.)

I'm connected to Harry because he is a good character. A lot of the plot in the Dresden File is Harry paying the price for his stupidity. And that makes everything so much more engaging.

I know everything that Harry does is going to majorly impact Harry later.

But let's face it, Harry Dresden is a jerk. He is a chauvinistic male pig. He's sexy in a lot of ways, because while he's a jerk, while he is a complete and total asshole at times, he cares about his friends. And whatever you do, don't come between him and the people he cherishes.

He'll destroy you.

And I can relate to that. He borrows trouble all of the time. Trouble often borrows him too, for use as heavy ammunition.

He may be a jerk, but he's a fun jerk. He's funny, he's sweet and caring at all of the right times. And even when I want to slap him for making stupid decisions–like getting it on with that Mab wench instead of with m–err, nevermind. Moving on.

I'm invested in this character. He's the type of character I'm thinking about long after I've finished reading the book.

Things don't happen to him. He happens. That's it. Other characters target Harry and their plots tangle him up in a bunch of things. Harry deals with the consequences of those actions.

Nothing happens because it just happen. Someone is always behind the events in the novel. Even if that someone is making a foolish error–like messing with Harry Dresden. (How dare you hurt so much of a hair on Dresden! I'll destroy you!!)

Now, making a likable, sympathetic character is a totally different matter.

But my advice? Start with creating a story where people happen to each other, and the plot is actually the consequence of actions.

When I was learning characterization, this was the first step for me. Once I figured this out, something awesome happened:

I realized writing a story in this fashion was that much more fun.

And that's why most of us read, isn't it? To have fun, to experience things through characters…and to get away from the real world for a bit.

Even if that real world happens to be absolutely horrifying and full of intense moments.

Nooo, I haven't been re-reading the Dresden Files again in anticipation of Skin Games… what gave you that idea?

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