Plot-Driven vs. Character-Driven Fiction

Hi, SEers! You’re with Mae, and I’m glad you’ve chosen to spend time with me. Today, I’d like to discuss plot-driven fiction vs. character-driven fiction. As writers (and readers) we have preferences, and each style has merit.

Plot Driven
Situations and circumstance take center stage in a plot-driven story. The work is focused on events and happenings more so than the internal struggles of the characters. External conflict is key.

Character Driven
In a character-driven story, plot becomes secondary to the goals and motivations of the characters and character growth throughout the story. Deep POV and inner monologues work well in character driven fiction.

This is not to say that plot-driven fiction doesn’t rely on character development, and vice versa,  only that the primary focus is different.

In a character-driven story, the reader is more likely to form an emotional bond with the protagonist. This is achieved through developing backstory (not all of which will play out in the novel), a strong character voice, plenty of conflict, and a intriguing character arc. The reader becomes invested in the character or characters who may begin to feel like friends or family. This is especially true in a longer work or series where  characters have extended time and opportunity to reveal myriad sides of their personalities.

Young bike rider with wheels off ground, silhouetted against night skyPlot-driven stories rely heavily on action or external conflicts that force characters to react quickly to a given situation. As an author you’re more likely to rely on outlining and plotting in advance. Murder mysteries, science-fiction, and adventure stories often fall into this category. Jurassic Park is one popular example of a plot-driven novel, and definitely one that forces the characters to respond on the fly.

Yet, when I think about Jurassic Park, my memory goes beyond rampaging dinosaurs and dramatic escapes. I also remember the growth of the characters, especially Dr. Grant and how his opinion of children changed by the end of the book.

Still Life with Crows, is the first Special Agent Pendergast novel I read (out of sequence, it’s actually number four) which to this day remains one of my favorites. It’s a plot-driven book, yet also the novel that hooked me on the character of Aloysius Pendergast. How did that happen in a plot-driven story? Sure, I remember the plot—an excellent one—but it’s the character who made one heck of a lasting impression!

On the flip side,  Station Eleven a highly-touted character-driven work left me feeling disappointed when it didn’t live up to the hype.

Where the Crawdads Sing is another character-driven bestseller. This one, I loved, but I can also see aspects of the detailed plotting that went into it, especially toward the latter half of the book.

As a reader, I am more likely to stick with a character-driven novel than a plot-driven novel if the story doesn’t immediately grab me. There’s more opportunity to develop the emotional bond I crave when reading. My own takeaway is to think of plot as the gloss on the surface, character-driven as the guts underneath.

What about you? Do you have a preference or examples you’d like to share?  Are you a character-driven writer or a plot-driven writer? The great thing about fiction is that there is no right or wrong answer, and there are plenty of readers for both styles. Let me hear your thoughts in the comments.

Ready, set, go!

Bio box for author, Mae Clair

67 thoughts on “Plot-Driven vs. Character-Driven Fiction

  1. So many replies already! I’d love to know which I am – a little of each, perhaps. I like to play with situations, but I’m not Virginia Wolfe, so it is always with an intention to move the plot along. A very interesting and thought-inspiring post, which, as usual, I discovered too late!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Fred! So cool to see you here. I’m a little of each too, but I think 90% character driven and 10% plot driven. I’m glad I made you stop and think, Whatever the ratio in your stories, they are always engrossing from start to finish. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Your thoughts, especially on the ‘science’ of writing, always give me pause. It is difficult to analyse oneself – up too close, and so on. I would have said you’re writing was primarily character-driven too, but your plots come through very strongly. I remember setting about writing a review for one of you ‘Hodes Hill’ books and discovering I was into spoilers from the very first sentence! I surrendered to it in the end and decided I just wasn’t equipped!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well that brought a smile to my face. I often do feel my plots are intricate, but strangely they develop after my characters and because of my characters. I’m probably not explaining that as well as I should, but when I write I’m always focused on the characters. As scene passes into scene they reveal/show me the plot. 🙂

        And I’m so glad to know you enjoyed Hode’s Hill!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: #ReblogAlert – This Week on #StoryEmpire | The Write Stuff

  3. What an interesting post, Mae. I tend to gravitate toward character-driven novels, novels where the character’s inner journey is what sucks me in and keeps me there. That doesn’t mean I don’t love a great plot too, but pure physical action without much “emotional action” doesn’t engage me deeply. The right blend of both is awesome.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like that perfect blend too, Diana, but I am definitely character-driven both as a reader and a writer. I need the emotional attachment. Looking back, I think I’ve always been that way, though in my younger years I didn’t necessarily understand what drew me to specific works, or why my own were so character heavy!

      Liked by 1 person

      • The book I just finished writing is full of action, Mae, but when I wrote it, the characters’ emotional lives were my main focus. I think it comes down to where we put most of our creative energy that defines us as primarily character-driven or plot driven writers. It was interesting to think about.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I agree, Diana. Both are needed in a book for good balance, but one usually becomes the stronger focus. And I’m looking forward to your new book!

        Like

  4. Hi Mae, I do like the way these posts and conversations makes me think. I tend to agree with Jan that the two go hand-in-hand, most character driver books have a plot even if it is a less obvious plot like the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I am not a reader of thrillers or murder mysteries but I do read a lot of books with strong characterisations like Dracula, Jane Eyre, and All Quite on the Western Front (being my recent reads). I have also recently read the second book in Love’s Register by Leslie Tate which is definitely character driven. The goals of my book A Ghost and His Gold were definitely to show the impact of war on the characters. It is not a book about war but about the effects of war on people and society.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely agree you need both strong characters and a good plot for overall balance. I think it’s more of which becomes the narrower focus under the microscope. Some genres also work better for one than the other. It sounds to me like you have a lot of character focus in A Ghost and His Gold, along with the plot ARC. I can’t really point to any of my books and say that plot carries them, although I’ve been told many times that my plots are intricate. Strange, since it’s always the characters I focus on and the rest seems to fall into place. It does make you stop and think. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and the conversations it generated. It’s almost like a found table discussion! 🙂

      Like

  5. Ouch! There’s scifi and then there’s scifi, and the best scifi balances world, events and characters – think Dune or Left Hand of Darkness or Otherland etc etc.
    I’ve been a scifi fan since my late teens, and the stories I love the most are the ones where the science/tech/world/alien/ is the catalyst for change, not the be-all and end-all of the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oooh, I loved Dune! I can’t recall if I read the Left Hand of Darkness but it sounds familiar. Sci-fi was my first love as a reader. I read my first book, Death Planet, in grade school and immediately became hooked. I devoured sci-fi through my teens and still enjoy good sci-fi tale today. I do need the balance of strong characters with a good plot. Love what you said about the element for catalyst of change.
      Many thanks for sharing your thoughts and adding to the discussion!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Mae. I really enjoyed it and I’m always delighted to meet another Dune fan.
        If you get the chance, give Left Hand of Darkness a try. It won the Hugo for the late Ursula K LeGuin. I think she’s also credited with coming up with the ‘ansible’, a device for communicating across interstellar distances. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      • I KNEW it!! I was sure Left Hand of Darkness was by LeGuin. I used to devour her books. I’m sure I’ve read it, but it’s been so long. The same with Dune. I think I read 3-4 of the books that followed, but never did finish out the series. You’re making me remember my sci-fi passion from my younger days, LOL!

        Like

  6. Without a doubt, I prefer character-driven stories, I need to identify with the protagonist, plot-driven writing has never provided a great attraction (what must they do to me as a child), and often I cannot finish plot-driven fiction. In that case, I easily lose interest, it appears to me something is missing in plot-driven fiction writing.
    Movies In contrast I regard in a different category. Here I am more attracted to the directing, the performance, the special effects and the quality of the photography. Under these circumstances I can forgive should the presentation of the protagonist be too flat.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Michael. I’m definitely on the character-driven side of the coin, too. Like you, I need to identify with the protagonist.

      It’s interesting how movies are so different. I think this is why book-to-movie adaptations often fail, especially if it is a character-driven work being transferred to the screen. I too, am more drawn to the special effects and performances in film. Maybe it comes down to the difference between “watching” and “reading.” In watching a movie, I feel more the observer, while reading a book, I feel part of the story.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’ve been enjoying the discussion and comments from everyone!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. My fantasy world of Wytchfae starts with world-building to allow the parallel dimensions to come to life, grounded in the overriding theme of good vs evil and another that always seems to show up as well– self actualization, and then the characters that have been speaking to me come into being and flesh themselves out. Whether a character is human, fae, goddess, dark guardian, demon, or whatever, I find that I get to know the character more as I write and as he or she interacts with the others and adapts to the circumstances. On the other hand, the cozy mystery series, while heavy on plot, starts with the main character and supporting characters. With a series featuring one main character, I have to really get to know that person before putting a lot of work into who croaked this week and whodunit. The historical romances are similar, starting with getting to know the motivations and goals of the heroine and hero and then seeing them in the fascinating medieval world. It’s interesting that my short pieces, often horror, usually start with a word or brief idea, immediately followed by getting to know the character, including every little mannerism, and only then worrying about plot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s interesting how you approach the different genres, Flossie, and how each has its own pattern of growth. Whereas your characters speak to you more as you write (in your Wytchfae world), I find that my plot develops more as I write. For me, that’s the downside of being a planter. I know my characters before heading into the tale, but the tale often weaves itself from their actions.

      I love hearing how others approach their writing, their plots and their characters. I’ve never written a cozy but I see the challenges in what you said.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and happy writing!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. You’ve opened my eyes to the two approaches, Mae. I’m currently reading Andrew Watts’ War Planners. The plot drives the story, but the protagonist pushes the plot—if that makes sense. I guess I gravitate to books that are character-driven but have strong plots. More to ponder! 😊

    Liked by 3 people

    • I like your approach, Gwen. A strong plot is essential, but characters (especially the protagonist) is key. I’m mostly about characters, but I have read a book or two where there wasn’t enough plot to make me appreciate the overall story. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I agree that it has to be a mix. I would like to get better at complicated plots, but haven’t broken through that wall yet. I admit some of my plots boil down to identify the monster, hunt the monster, kill the monster. In that case, characters have to carry the load.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Great post, Mae:) I loved Where the Crawdads Sing too. I find myself more drawn to character-driven first but enjoy plot-driven mixed in. Some sci-fi lacks that emotion for me, which is why I’m always excited to find that blend of both. I like to get inside my character’s head both in reading and writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sci-fi is a good example of strong plot-driven work, Denise. I know that isn’t always the case, but many books I’ve read in that genre focus more on plot. Like you, I love when I find a book that has a great balance of both. There have been several psychological fiction novels I’ve read where the plot wasn’t as developed as I would have liked, but the characters carried the book. I love getting inside a character’s head both as a reader and a writer!

      Liked by 3 people

  11. I definitely tend to gravitate toward character-driven stories. I want to feel what the characters are feeling more than getting engrossed in the plot. But without a strong plot, you have no story. So, ultimately, the two go hand-in-hand to make a well-rounded story. Great post, Mae! Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree with you completely, Jan. I definitely prefer character-driven work as well, but the plot has to be strong enough to carry the characters. It’s definitely a balancing act between the two to craft a strong book!

      Liked by 2 people

  12. HH and I watched John Wick 3 this weekend, and it’s ALL action driven, even though you get inklings of the characters, and it worked for us. Lots of fun. But it would get old after while. I read and write so many mysteries, I think of plots and then of characters who’d work in them. I like both to be developed. I love Louis Kincaid because the plots are complex but so is his character. I enjoy Lynn Cahoon’s Tourist Trap series, but sometimes she spends so much time on what Jill and the people of South Cove are doing, the mystery gets lost. Your books have a great balance. In Hode’s Hill, the characters past and present came to life AND the mysteries were solid. I don’t read much science fiction, but I was HOOKED on D.L. Cross’s Invasion series because the characters were so strong and so well developed. One of my favorite books this year was CIRCE, a character-driven book, which is unusual for me, but there was a strong enough plot I didn’t get bogged down in angst, which can happen for me. So I guess if I had to choose one over the other, I’d go for plot, but strong characters brings plot to life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the wonderful compliments about Hode’s Hill. Although, I consider myself a character-driven author, I do work hard on my plots. I think most writers do–and if they start with plot, then they craft their characters to bring them alive. You’ve done that without al of your series, but I think Muddy River is my favorite in that respect.

      I think when it comes to movies, especially action and a lot of genre films, they can rely more heavily on plot. But as you said, all that action on the page would get old after a while. I think that’s why I like Pendergast so much—and Louis Kinciad. Both series have deftly-constructed plots, but there is plenty of character development, too.

      Great example with D.L. Cross and the Astral Conspiracy series. There was so much plot going on in those novels, but the characters are what hooked me, too!

      Liked by 2 people

  13. My preference is character-driven plots. I wrote my first three books in the first person POV, which guaranteed a focus on the character. I suppose once I get a character into my head, it is tough to move away to a plot-driven scheme. For me, the characters are always developed before the plot. Excellent review of each, Mae.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I know I gravitate toward character-driven fiction, both as a reader and as a writer. But even the best characters won’t save a bad plot for me, so I guess I need both to really enjoy a story.

    I just watched Tenet over the weekend, and a lot of people loved it, but it was all plot for me. (Whether it was brilliant or ridiculous isn’t for me to say.) I didn’t connect with any of the characters. In fact, the protagonist didn’t even have a name. He was called “The Protagonist.” I just didn’t get into the film like a lot of people did, and I think it was because I missed the emotional connection with the characters.

    Long story short, I do want both, but I think I lean toward the character side. Great post, Mae.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You summed up my feelings as well, Staci. I want a strong character connection, but also a plot that supports those characters. I’m not familiar with Tenet, but I did just watch The Woman in the Window. I LOVED that book. It was very much character-driven, but unfortunately, that didn’t translate to the screen. I thought the movie was just so-so. I think that’s why a lot of book adaptions fall short when they hit cinema.
      My suspicion is if I watched Tenent, given what you’ve said, I probably wouldn’t connect either.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. I think the emotional drive of character-driven fiction is very alluring. We all crave to see some part of ourselves in the stories we read, and hope to understand and come up with solutions just like the characters. Stories aren’t just entertainment, they’re problem solving techniques. Thanks for sharing this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Terveen. That’s a very insightful comment. The emotional bond with characters, when well done, definitely puts the reader in the plot and triggers our emotions. I just finished a book yesterday where I kept imagining myself in the role of the protagonist, trying to figure out what I would do in her situation. Mysteries are especially great for that problem-solving scenario. Thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  16. I think I am plot driven for movies, but I am character driven for books. I love to lose myself in the character and his/her struggles and growth. That being said, the plot has to be engaging and worth reading. The stories I write are all character driven, for sure. I’ve read a few plot driven stories. Some have developed their characters which makes the story amazing, and in others, the characters fell flat, which prevented me from truly enjoying the story. An author would be wise to do right by both characters and plot. Great post, Mae! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yvette, I never stopped to consider the difference between movies and books, but I’m with you. I prefer plot-driven movies as well. Maybe that’s why a lot of books don’t transfer well to the screen. I just saw a movie adaption of a bestseller. While I loved the book and couldn’t wait for the movie, I thought the movie was mediocre. It was definitely a character-driven book. You’ve given ME something to think about!

      I also don’t enjoy a novel when the characters end up flat. As authors, we do need to concentrate on both even when we slant more heavily in one direction. I’m a character-driven writer as well!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. I try to balance both. Most of my pb stories rely on funny plots but as with all good pb’s, if the characters are boring then the kids loose interest. I feel that I gravitate to a more plot driven book for myself to read though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Erin. Wow, I would imagine children’s fiction is a whole different ball of wax. I never stopped to consider what you need to balance there. I do like the idea of funny plots with interesting characters for the kids. And thanks for sharing your reading preference too. I’m prefer character-driven fiction but without a strong plot, a book can languish!

      Like

  18. I tend to focus more on character-driven fiction both as a reader and a writer, but I think both are needed. Too much action without flat, one-demensional characters falls short. Too much focus on the characters with a boring plot is a turn off as well.

    Thanks for your explanation of both types.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely, Joan. A good balance is definitely required. I have, however, read a few plot-focused novels that just didn’t have enough character development to work for me.
      Glad you enjoyed the explanations.

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Pingback: Plot-Driven vs. Character-Driven Fiction | Welcome to Harmony Kent Online

  20. An interesting post, Mae. I think, on balance, much of my fiction is character driven; although I don’t tend to categorise when I’m doing the writing. Fascinating that the above examples show overlap between the two. Personally, I don’t think one would work without an element of the other 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I completely agree, Harmony. You need both, it’s just a matter of which takes center stage. I know my own writing is character-driven and that’s what I prefer as a reader, but I go back to Still Life With Crows and think of how that novel hooked me on the character of Pendergast. I have, however, read some plot focal fiction I didn’t care for because there wasn’t enough character development. As a reader I had no bond with the characters, which made the story flat for me.

      Liked by 1 person

We'd love to know what you think. Comment below.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.