The other day, a writer-friend of mine and I were discussing novels, and he was arguing that my sci-fi/fantasy series, unlike many of the books in those genres, is character-driven rather than plot-driven.

Character-driven books are typically those with a lot of dialogue. The characters’ choices are central to the story—in fact, there would be no story without them. Romance novels are examples of this; we are focused on whether or not “X” will fall in love with “Y”…or get into a relationship with “Z” instead. Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, and even Shakespeare wrote mostly character-driven works. There is more talking than action—though action can happen—and we are interested in who these people are. The characters’ reactions matter more than the events that they are reacting to.

Characters in a character-driven book are in charge, though, which can make writing difficult; if the author decides to mutiny and take the wheel, the plot will end up feeling contrived as she wrests free-will from the characters, making them do what she wants.

In a plot-driven book, the series of events is pivotal. It doesn’t matter, as much, who the events happen to: the book is about an event, not people. My friend claimed that most science fiction and fantasy works are plot driven, and he’s probably right. The Lord of the Rings, for example, is plot-driven—we are interested in what becomes of the Ring; if Frodo doesn’t accept the quest and take it to Mount Doom, we will follow the character that does. Mystery stories, like Agatha Christie’s, are the same way. We don’t find out a lot about the various characters’ lives unless it pertains to the mystery. Everything is focused on whodunnit…and perhaps why it was done. Extraneous scenes are usually cut, because that’s not what the story is about.

According to my friend, who likes to use the plot-driven approach, it makes for a neater story (since the plot drives the story instead of the characters, the author has more say in what happens; he is freely able to dictate when and how to end the book, for example).

Of course, we get attached to characters in both kinds of books. Whether we care about the outcome of a plot-driven quest or mission is based on whether we like the characters. And, in a character-driven book, we expect the book to go somewhere. If we just jump from scene to scene, showing daily life with no furthering of the book’s story, we’re likely to put the book down.

Personally, I’ve often complained about how difficult it is to get my characters to do anything I expect them to do—but then, that is the hallmark of a character-driven book. Because I have invested so much humanity in them, they have the right to make their own choices, and the more I let them do that, the better the story will be.

If I was writing a plot-driven book, though, giving over control to the characters would be disastrous. Suddenly, instead of focusing on the plot, the narration would go off into the characters’ lives, and feelings, and back stories, and the momentum would come to a screeching halt. In a plot-driven work, the characters look to the author for their direction. In a character-driven piece, it’s the other way around.

It can be confusing to some readers who assume that I am in control of my characters. They’ll ask questions like, “Why don’t you just make them do what you want?” or puzzle over how why a couple I created doesn’t work out: “After all, you made them for each other. Just make them happy.” The problem is, to do that, I’d have to change the kind of story I’m writing.

So what about you? Which kinds of stories do you write, or read? Is some of it based on gender? As noted above, men and women both used to write character-driven and plot-driven books, but has this changed over time?

Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren

2 thoughts on “What Drives Your Story?

  1. I so enjoyed your post and I am fascinated by your comment about how the characters are in charge. Do you think that characters exist apart from a book? I was just reading an essay about Sherlock Holmes and the author was arguing that Holmes exists outside of his stories. Do you feel characters in a character-driven book are like that, whereas in a wholly plot driven book, characters are intrinsically connected to their stories? And can a character, like Holmes or Hercule Poirot, even though they are in more plot-driven stories, step outside of their own stories?

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    1. I think that deeply genuine characters, in any kind of story, do live outside the work. At least, as I write, I am keenly aware that I’m telling another person’s story, and that I may not get it right the first time. They surprise me, and my expectations influence how I write them–but they are real apart from what I write. My writing, though, is the only way the world will ever know my characters, and some readers may know them, in some ways, even more than I do.

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