Character Driven v. Plot Driven – Do we need labels?


plotvcharIf you’re a writer or you’ve spent time with writers you have probably heard of the labels ‘plot driven’ and ‘character driven’ in reference to movies or novels.

The labels describe two different approaches to how a story is told. People normally prefer one to the other, and there are writers and readers in both camps, but what do they actually mean? Stories have both characters and plots, so surely they are valid for all stories?

Well, at a very basic level, A plot driven story is. . . driven by the plot. External factors cause incidents to happen and the story follows characters reacting to these events. Conversely, a character driven story focuses on the character. External events may occur, but the story follows the character and their choices, irrespective of external events. The events therefore are secondary. They affect the character journey, but the journey is still about the character. The characters decisions do not bow to some external factor.

There is of course some falseness to that last statement. A normal person, a sane person, heck even a slightly unhinged person has at their core one very simple premise: Self-preservation. Normal people will choose to stay home rather than face the evil. They’d prefer to protect their family rather than fight the world’s battles. But those people are boring. No one is going to read about a character whose decisions are to tidy up the garden and carry on like normal while the world turns to crap. So appropriate characters are drawn that would respond to the call for arms, so as a consequence their character decisions lead to conflict, the core of any good story. A ‘character driven’ story has, in effect, characters driven by the plot.

snoopyDr Victoria Schmitt, author of Story Structure Architect describes the difference aptly. Compare the movies Independence Day and Signs. Both movies are about aliens invading Earth. In one movie the aliens attack and the characters are forced to react, ultimately becoming protactive by taking the battle back to the aliens and eventually defeating them. (This fits in very conveniently with the four act story structure which you can learn more about at www.storyfix.com). In the other movie, possible evidence of aliens is revealed and the movie spends most of its running time dealing with the effects of this external events, rather than blindly reacting to them.

In one movie there is nearly no time to think or contemplate (Initially at least) while in the other movie there is nothing but thinking and contemplation. One highlights character and the other uses characters to get from A to B.

You probably already guessed that Independence Day is the plot driven movie and Signs is the character driven movie.

So which one is better? Well, do you like chocolate icecream or strawberry icecream? They are both as good as each other, with strengths and weaknesses that will appeal to certain people.

Take the two movie’s characters portrayed by Mel Gibson and Will Smith. Both characters have hopes, dreams, fears, stupid private mistakes, complexities, the list goes on. One has his character exposed during ‘internal action’; one has his character exposed during ‘external action’.

Both characters are equally good, and both approaches are equally valid, but while one person might prefer the introspection of Signs, another may prefer the ‘blowing shit up’ angle that Independence Day takes.

However, neither movie would work without plot and character, or to put it another way, both movies are driven by character and plot. In a character driven story the characters are built to be appropriate for the plot. To say otherwise would be to say that the author did not plan their story.(Planning can be via upfront spreadsheets and scrawling on napkins, or it can take the guise of multiple drafts) In a plot driven story, appropriate characters are chosen to deal with the plot.

Plot and character are intertwined and equally important pillars of story engineering. Both are equally important to a story and neither can work without the other. Both must be mixed together at inception to get a quality product at the end.

I think that many people would read my novel Elite: And Here The Wheel and label it a ‘plot driven’ story. There are bad things that happen (caused by antagonistic characters) and the good guys get caught up in it. They are forced to react to events just to stay alive, before they can become proactive, go on the offensive, battle and beat the bad guys. Sounds like it fits, right?

Not really.

The characters of And Here The Wheel don’t spend the entire novel sitting around contemplating events. But the characters themselves dictate how they react to events. The history, personality, life experience, everything that makes the character who he or she is, drives them to make the decisions they make. They decide how to react to the external events.

If I had used different characters for the novel the external events would have been the same and the end result would probably be the same – this is the plot driving the novel, but how I got from A to B would be completely different because the characters are controlling the journey. This is the characters driving the novel.

So is the novel plot driven or character driven? It’s both. The characters are well drawn, are very complex and also pretty damaged. They are haunted by their pasts, they make counter intuitive decisions, they make mistakes, but they do what they think is best for them, which ultimately leads to the climax of the novel.

And whatever label you attach to the story, isn’t that the whole point of the thing? Climaxing?
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