Monday, March 28, 2011

Which Is Better: Plot-Driven or Character-Driven?

After the last couple of posts on POV and how that plays into plot-driven vs. character-driven stories, I realized that I’ve never done a post on this. Time to fix that…

What’s a character-driven story? What’s a plot-driven one? Which is more effective?

Outside events are pushing the character into a situation where he must first react, then act.

The character’s internal change plays a larger role in his actions than outside influence.

Plot-driven stories usually have great pacing, tension that keeps you on the edge of your seat, and fantastic plot twists that make you yelp with glee. Character-driven stories tend to be a little quieter, but have rich and fully developed characters that feel like real people we want to hang out with in our own lives.

So, which one is better? Is it personal preference? The story’s execution? The talent of the author? In my opinion, neither one is better—they are just different. Which you choose to implement should depend on your story. It also depends on you, the writer.

When you sit down to start a new story, do you map out events, your character’s goals, or what’s preventing him from getting what he wants? If so, then your focus is probably on plot. Or, do you figure out your character’s hopes, fears, quirks, and opinions? If so, then your focus is probably on character.

That said, this doesn’t mean you’re stuck with that one focus. I’m a plotter, yet my current WIP is character-driven. There are some twisty-plot-things going on, and the story’s catalyst is external, but the focus is mostly on the character and how she deals with everything. So, no one is destined to be one or the other. You can cross over to the dark side if you so desire. :)

In general, I think the most effective story is one that incorporates both character and plot. I’m all about balance in a story, and this is no exception. I love a good plot-driven story that takes me on a roller coaster ride of events, but I like it even better when the characters are vivid and real. I also love a good character-driven story where I connect on such a deep level that I forget this person is fictional. But I also need for interesting things to happen to that character. In other words, I want my cake and eat it too. :)

Where is your natural focus? Have you tried writing outside of that? If so, how did it go? If not, why?


Komal Kant said...

I agree with you about finding the right balance between both character and plot. I do an outline of the story - what are thr highs and lows, the twists, the outcomes and challenges etc. However, I also try and ensure that I have a very strong character who has strong beliefs, opinions, thoughts and ideas.

Brian James said...

Nice discussion. Though I believe a well written character driven story can have just as much tension and as many twists as plot driven.

My feeling is that plot driven stories have really become the domain of television and cinema. Intense character studies are still the one thing that books can offer that film cannot.

T.D. McFrost said...

Komai (love that name btw) has got it right! Get down withca bad self! LOL

Excellent post Tabitha and so good of you to be biased in this situation. Both are ancient techniques that have proven effective for a number of published works (need I list them?). There is no right and wrong - you can choose one or the other for simplicity - but incorporating both will be a marvelous buff to any work.

But be warned, if you do decide to meld them, keep it simple. The worst thing a writer can do is lose their reader with all the fancy turns and twists.

Nancy Thompson said...

Well damn, now I'm even more confused. My ms is equal parts of both so I can't quite decide which I should call it. Argh! Just when I thought I had it all figured out!

Anonymous said...

I'm much more plot-driven. I love fast paced books with lots of actions. Yes, my character and his/her internal struggles come through, but they aren't the driving force. I like to use the plot to show my reader different sides of my characters.

Danyelle L. said...

I agree with you. I like stories that have a balance between both--and that's something I strive for in my writing. That being said, I tend to lean more towards characters than plot. A story can have an awesome plot, but if I don't love or live in the characters' skins, then I don't enjoy it as much.

Tatum Flynn said...

I think plot-driven stories can actually bring out a character's personality a great deal - after all, we often show our true character when we're in a crisis.

Tabitha said...

Komal - I think those make the best kinds of stories. Strong characters are the most interesting to read, and interesting plots keep the pages turning. :)

Brian - I completely agree. My favorite kinds of books are character-driven stories with amazing plots. Movies have a hard time creating stories like that effectively, but I really enjoy it when I find one that works. :)

TD - exactly, everything in moderation. Or, balance. :)

Tabitha said...

Nancy - it sounds to me like you're exactly on track! :) If you've got equal parts of both, then it doesn't matter which one it is. You've already got everything you need. :)

Kelly - I'm the same. I need a really good plot to keep me interested. Granted, I really love to be deep inside the characters, but I get all giddy when exciting things happen. That's where I naturally gravitate. :)

Danyelle - this has happened to me in recent years. I still get more excited over complicated plots, but I also need to be so deep within the character that I forget s/he is fictional. Those are the best reading experiences. :)

Girl Friday - ooo, I love that concept! And it's so true. Throwing your characters into the worst possible situation will really bring out the best and the worst in them. When I'm writing a new story, one of my favorite questions to ask myself is "what's the worst possible thing that can happen here?" :)

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

I think both are equally important and have heard agents/editors say they look for both. You can have both and have a quiet story. You can have both and have an exciting story. They are always essential when writing any story. But, as a YA writer, I think it is especially important. Teens want to relate to the character, feel that emotion-driveness, and they also want outside elements giving the character things to react to.

Catherine Stine said...

A blend of both is the best. I do agree with Brian James that high concept/plot is the trend. But one must create a complex, compelling character for that breakneck thrilling plot to truly come alive.

Marcia said...

My natural focus is to be character-driven, but as a reader I want a book to have plot. I always strive for a balance between character, plot, and language.

Sherrie Petersen said...

I think I started off as a plot-based writer, only my plotting sucked :P I'm drawn to characters. If they don't interest me, it doesn't matter what happens in the plot. So I think my writing has evolved that way, too. My plotting has improved (thank goodness!) but my stories are definitely more character driven. Like you said, I think the best stories incorporate both.

C.R. Evers said...

I think the best books have a good balance of both as well. Character w/ weak plot can be kind of boring and strong plot w/ weak character can be flat.