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

Wow, this one was so much harder to write than Part I

Okay, so last time I left off with the thought that the PvC issue was a matter of approach (meaning how you plan a story) and orientation (meaning the actual direction the story takes)—which is part of it.  Ultimately, though, I think the issue has to do with learning how to allow either plot or character to carry the primary story to its resolution while at the same time achieving balance.

It’s true: Lots of character-driven stories tend to showcase more of the elements that may be lacking in plot-driven ones, and vice versa.  However, trying to assign various characteristics to one side or the other is like driving a stake through the left and right heart; correspondence between both sides is necessary in order to keep a story alive.  A story without character is just as DOA as a story lacking plot.

Another Way to Look at the Dichotomy

You know what this issue reminds me of is the whole fate vs. free will debate.  It is the ying and yang of life.  There’s the idea that people can choose how they act, conduct themselves and initiate change, but then there’s also the idea that there are just some things in life that are out of the individual’s control and actually end up changing the individual instead.

I think this is similar to fiction where a writer can choose to highlight their character(s)’s choices and the consequences to said choices, or they can highlight the events that happen to them, not because of them.  Character vs. plot; free will/choice vs. fate.  Plot influences character influences plot; choice influences fate influences choice.  You could say character influences plot influences character, and fate influences choice influences character, but does that make it any different?  People are either going to act on their own accord or react to things coming from outside their realm of influence, when it comes down to it.

The difference, in fiction, is going to be what you decide to pose as the main conflict—an action performed or decision made by the character or an event that happens to them and causes them to react?  The difference may also be in how you choose to resolve that conflict—with the protagonist taking action or making a decision, or by them reacting a certain way to something.  An illusion is created when you choose to focus on one or the other because though the one may be highlighted, the other is still at play in the background or beneath the surface.  (At least, it should be.)

The way I see it, both dichotomies are continuous loops.  Destiny and choice are not mutually exclusive, and neither are plot and character.  The issue, then, becomes a matter of what you choose to highlight and how you balance the two sides in your story.  Are you more interested in a character(s)’s ability to influence events, about an unusual event (or set of events) that changes your character(s), or some combination of the two?

Whatever your focus, it will surely manifest itself in your work.  Having balance between plot and character by adequately developing both is what’s important.

Focus (or Lack Thereof)

The deciding factor, I think, is focus, and this is two-fold because focus can be implemented in both the planning and execution stages of creating a novel.

On the one hand, you have to consider what elements were originally important to you while you were in the planning stages of your novel.  Which of the story elements came most readily to you?  Was it your characters?  A certain world or setting?  Perhaps it was an event, or even a theme?  More importantly, how did you juggle all of these things?  Is there a connection between them all?  (Hopefully you started with a strong concept and were able to develop it into a premise.  That helps to keep a story in focus.)

On the other hand, you must be aware of what your focus was once you started writing your novel.  What did you choose to put the most effort into?  That same character, world/setting, theme or event?  Or did you put a pretty balanced effort into including all of these thing?  (Also, was this in keeping with the original focus dictated by your concept and premise?)

I think one reason you won’t hear terms like setting-driven or theme-driven stories tossed around much is because theme and setting have less carrying weight than character and plot.  Stories are ultimately about characters and the events they are involved in, so to put the primary focus on setting or theme is to miss the whole point of telling a story.  (And if you’ve done this with your draft, then you’ll already have a good idea of what needs to be fixed.)

Develop a strong concept and premise beforehand, and you’ll have something to write towards for the rest of your journey.

When the Focus is Split

Sometimes the plan and the execution go hand in hand; your story may develop along the lines you’d initially intended.  If that’s the case for you, then I consider you to be quite the lucky duck (or just really good at sticking to a plan).  Looks like relatively fair winds ahead for you.

Other times, though, you may discover that the two don’t actually line up.  If you’ve designed your story to unfold one way but as you’re writing it you find it wants to go another, then realignment will be necessary because there is a disconnect somewhere.  You’ll have to find a way to get the actual story on the page and the envisioned story of your mind’s eye in sync with one another.

In other words, something’s gotta give.

An Example

With my novel I did a lot of experimental drafts because I couldn’t decide on a premise.  The overall concept more or less stayed the same in each draft (that there are those who have the power to manipulate the elements and live secret lives), but my focus kept shifting around in the execution stage.  (Should the story focus on someone who is already aware of their powers or someone who is just discovering them?  Also, is this person’s entire life kept secret from others or just their abilities?)

It was difficult to settle on an angle, but once I did I found that my premise was (finally) linked primarily to the one character that had the most potential for change.  I also decided that outside forces would drive the larger (world) plot, but the development of the protagonist would be my main focus.  (Perhaps I’ve taken this approach because I plan on writing a trilogy.)

In other words, I’m driving the story ahead with both plot and character but in two different ways (and for two different reasons).

Diagnosing Your Story

The thing to remember, no matter which element you find most interesting, is to shoot for balance in your writing.  Chances are that during your first draft your focus was on maybe one or two elements (say setting and plot, for example) and then you later realized that your story was lacking others (like character and theme).  An overall assessment of your story at the end of your first draft will be paramount in identifying its strengths and weaknesses and then later deciding how to go about making it better.

If you find that your characters are pretty two-dimensional, boring, useless, cliché, etc. then it looks like you’ve focused too much on another element, likely plot.  You’ll have to go back and beef up your characters and figure out what you can do to make them more interesting or vital to the story.

If you find that your plot is meandering or non-present, then you’ll know you’ve neglected an important story element and may be too focused on the characters.  Maybe the plot doesn’t make sense or the story needs more events with conflict to create rising action and drive it towards a climax and, ultimately, resolution.  That is something you’ll have to go back and investigate.

Shooting For the Stars

It may take longer, making sure all these elements are up to par, but why write if you don’t aim to improve?  Writing novels isn’t for the faint of heart.  It can be a frustrating process that demands your very best effort.  I think it certainly helps to know whether your novel is more plot- or character-driven, but that should never be the end goal.  What matters most is that you are telling a great, entertaining story that artfully balances the elements of storytelling.

What do you think?

How important is writing a plot- or character-driven novel in the grand scheme of things?  Can you tell what kind of story you’re working on while writing?  Which elements of story do you find yourself focusing on more often than not, and which do you have to work harder on?


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

  1. >I agree, you really can't have one without the other. But I will say that almost all writers are particularly strong in one of those two elements initally.For me, I always start with plot. A story. Conflict and that sort of thing. Then characters come next, putting them in my story and seeing what happens.At this point, however, the characters are devices to move my plot along and go in certain directions…I am constantly changing characters and the plot because of this dynamic relationship. It might be a "chicken or the egg" sort of deal in the beginning, but in the end, I'm working with both elements to weave my story together.


  2. A friend of mine, a professor of literature, said my second novel was “too much like life” (meaning too loose and meandering), until the main character wakes up with the cops in his apartment and has to go on the run. The part after that he liked, because there was more tension and danger.

    I thought he had a point. Everything I’ve done has been character-driven, but now I’m writing mystery stories and that forces you to keep the plot front and center. Genre restrictions are wonderful for keeping things focused, as I discussed here:

    So, I’m looking for that balance, but character is always the main thing with me.


    • Hey, Anthony. Thanks for sharing the link. (I don’t seem to be able to comment on that particular post for some reason, so I guess I’ll just say a little something here, heh.)

      I guess I never thought of seeing genre as a means of setting boundaries before, more as a way to identify my work by. Though, that makes sense. If you try to make your story a bit of everything it’s bound to lack focus. Not only that, but from a publishing standpoint I’m sure it will make marketing your book next to impossible if you don’t have that focus and a core sense of identification with one genre! (That is, if you’re writing genre fiction. Not so sure for literary, heh.)

      For fantasy those “essential elements” that provide focus might be magic (or some other “impossible” or mythical element) and a hero(es) going on an adventurous quest of some kind, so writing a story that strays from this would make labeling it as fantasy a questionable decision. (Though, I still like to think that the tyranny of these common elements leaves room for much interpretation and welcomes versions of fantasy we’ve yet to see published. I don’t think I’d be writing my own novel if I believed otherwise, heh.)

      Beyond that, it’s always a balancing act. Balance, balance, balance…though I think I lean more towards the “character” side of my story, as well. 😉


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