The Imaginary War: Plot- vs. Character-Driven Story Development (Part I)

On the matter of plot-driven vs. character-driven stories, I am a little conflicted.  The novel I’m currently working on has taken on a more character-driven orientation since I’ve decided to stick with my latest draft.  However, I did start off on the plot-driven route but then decided to switch gears after my sixth-and-a-half (failed) attempt.


Well, that’s what I plan on talking about this week.  There are reasons to approach stories from either angle at first, but once the story is underway does it have to remain that way?  Should it remain that way?

The PvC Issue

For those who may not know what the PvC (plot vs. character, not polyvinyl chloride!) issue pertains to, I’ll try to summarize it.

Basically, there are two schools of thought out there that favor either a more plot-driven story or a character-driven one.  I imagine you already gathered that much, though, being the bright folks that you are, so let’s just get into the deeper aspects of the issue.

Often, the term “plot-driven” is associated with genre fiction (science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, etc.).  The focus, when you read a plot-driven story, tends to be on the plot itself.  When you close a plot-driven novel, what you remember most–the most poignant element–is the journey, the events that took place and/or the settings you were taken to.  Not necessarily the characters who were in it.

Its aftertaste is something like, “Yeah, I’ll remember going on that ride.”  (Star Wars, anyone?)  And actually, with an excessively plot-driven story, you may find that the characters are lacking development.  They are either cliché or boring.  Or worse, both.

A science fiction example might be Karl Schroeder’s Sun of Suns, or Cherie Priest’s Dreadnought.  Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials is definitely plot-driven, in my opinion, particularly in the two last novels.  I’d like to point out that all three of these are more-or-less known for their detailed or unique worldbuilding, as well.

On the other hand, character-driven stories are, well, most memorable for their characters (go figure), and the plot takes secondary priority in the grand scheme of things.  Your literary classics tend to fall into this group.  The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is certainly one of them, as is Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  (Daisy and Rochester were some of the characters that especially stood out for me.)  I’d like to point out that these novels are heavy on themes surrounding human nature, as well–shallowness amongst the upper class, for example, in The Great Gatsby and bigamous love and differences in social class in Jane Eyre.  Symbolism and motifs, which are especially characteristic of literary novels, were also important in these two stories.  (Remember the green light in The Great Gatsby?)

The literary novel’s aftertaste might be something like, “Huh, I need to think on that one.”  Or even, “What the f#@! did I just read?”  (And if you read it back in junior high or high school, like I did with The Puttermesser Papers, then you still may be wondering the answer to that question.)

The character-driven story really, really makes you think about the characters’ choices and the implications of said choices because they are typically implied and not spelled out for the reader.  And if that wasn’t enough, you might also have trouble remembering what, exactly, happened in the novel (aka the plot) because the emotional experience of it all was so strong by comparison.  In contrast with the plot-driven story, I think with the excessively character-driven novel you may find that it is the author’s plot that is lacking development–i.e. rottenly cliché and/or boring.  Or just non-present/-evident.

At least, that’s how I understand it.

Take a look at what other people have to say on this topic, if you’re interested:

I think I’ve said enough about that.  Now, on to the actual issue.

What is the issue, really?

I don’t think that the real plot- vs. character-driven debate has anything to do with whether or not your story should include plot or character.  Any sensible writer knows that a good story should include both, so there is no versus, no actual war between those two concepts.  Not really.

As I see it, the PvC issue is a matter of approach and story orientation.  It is usually discussed as a matter of end result, but I think it starts earlier in the writing process, before an author even begins to write, and it might even shift for an author in the middle of the writing process.

I’ve got a few more thoughts on this, so I’ll be splitting this topic up into two posts again (Part II).

In the meantime, what are your thoughts on plot- and character-driven stories?  What type of story do you find yourself currently working on, or perhaps reading?  Is it difficult to tell?  Also, do you have experience writing both types?


2 thoughts on “The Imaginary War: Plot- vs. Character-Driven Story Development (Part I)

  1. >When I think of character-driven novels, I do tend to conjure up literary fiction. I think these days, there is more of a marriage between the two. Genre specific stories these days are relying on strong characterization now. Especially in my specific world of YA, since adolescence are looking for characters to relate to.On the other hand, contemporary literay fiction is showcasing deeper and more sophisticated plots as well.


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