I’m fond of saying there are only three kinds of plots: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself. I also add that the best plots are usually a blend of all three. But these are plot archetypes, or “formulas” if you will. They aren’t necessarily what “drives” the plot.
When talking about what determines where a plot goes (as opposed to what it IS), there are only two kinds of plots: character-driven, and plot-driven. But again, the best plots are usually a blend of both.
What’s the difference?
Technically, the difference between character-driven and plot-driven stories is the focus on internal changes within the characters vs. external changes in action.
Stories that create change through external actions are plot-driven. Typically, these are the quest or action-adventure type plots where the objective is to seek and destroy someone or something, find and recover someone or something, solve a puzzle or mystery, or achieve some kind of personal accomplishment.
Plot-driven stories are usually developed around the plot. (Doh.) 😉 This often leads to not much attention being given to character development. Action-adventure stories are often notorious for not giving enough attention to the characters because of the emphasis on the plot, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Plot-driven authors wanting to make sure their characters don’t fall short need a good understanding of character development, or one character will not stand out from another when the reader closes the book.
Even if the author sees the differences in his characters clearly, it is the author’s responsibility to help the reader see those differences, too — to make them stand out as real individuals rather than just “job” roles within the story. Joss Whedon has said that plot should always be about the characters, and what he means by that is character development should never be sacrificed for the plot. In the end, all stories are ultimately about people — our lives, our struggles, our decisions, our joys, our heartbreaks — the state of being conscious.
Stories that create change through internal actions are character-driven. These are more often literary, YA, and romance genre type plots, where the objective is to observe how a character changes over time, so that the plot is a result of the character’s growth. The bad boy learns a lesson in humility and redemption. Or the good girl learns never to trust another soul again.
Since the plot in character-driven stories rests on the character development itself, sometimes it has problems with fawning too much over character design, but the plot ends up weak. The characters in coming-of-age stories, relationship stories, and life experience stories still need objectives, whether they choose their own direction, or fate throws them to the wind. Eventually, their choices about how they respond to the action is what pushes them toward their resolution … whether that’s a quest accomplished or failed.
I must insert here that some character-driven stories could be referred to as “plot-less” plots or “slice of life” plots. This kind of story is much more common in Eastern literature than Western, and it’s not the same thing as having a weak plot. A weak plot is one that attempts to go somewhere, but the structure and storytelling somehow fail to hold together well for the reader. The plot-less plot, by contrast, has a strong structure, but no conflict. Or the conflict is understated. Those three kinds of plot that I mentioned at the start of this article? They’re all based on conflict. But it is possible to write a story about a day in the life of a character in which stuff happens without conflict. (Maybe I will write about conflict plots vs. non-conflict plots another time.)
Best of Both Worlds
I prefer stories that are character-driven, meaning I love strong characters that I can remember as if they were acquaintances, long after I close the book. But I also love a good adventure. So, most of my favourite stories blend a strong, clear plot with deep character development. How is this done?
For plot-driven stories, authors should put a little extra effort into examining their character designs. Things like names, physical attributes, backgrounds, and roles in the story are usually considered basic character development. But if you want a better rating than “one-dimensional characters” in your reviews, don’t stop there. A well-developed character will be pushed further into shape by including intangible elements like personality quirks, beliefs and prejudices, distinct voices for narrative, etc. But turning that design into a full-blown character study, so that the action ends up being nothing more than a catalyst forcing the character to grow and change, taking the plot along for the ride with them, can push that development even further. This is what is meant when people talk about a character becoming a memorable, fully-fleshed, 3-D “person” whom the story is primarily about.
Characters like Lestat de Lioncourt, Drizzt Do’Urden, and Winnie-the-Pooh (original A.A. Milne version, not Disney derivatives) are so well-developed and so unique that we are familiar with them on a first-name basis and could be tempted to forget they are fictional characters. We have seen in great detail the heights and depths of their growing pains as they fight their personal demons and transform. In character-driven plots, the quests are interchangeable, but the characters are not because the quest is secondary and the real story is the character study on personal growth.
For character-driven stories, authors should put extra effort into examining their plots. Mix and layer the three types of plot conflicts I mentioned above. Plot layers are key to providing well-rounded challenges worthy of well-developed characters to overcome. Solid plot structures give character-driven plots (and readers) a visible road map of intent or purpose, even if they eventually throw the map out the window and speed off-road in their own direction. Relationships are built, and destroyed, because of having to work together on substantial goals. If you choose to remove conflict, make sure that what’s left is impressionable enough to keep the reader riveted to the page to see what the character discovered about himself and his world next.
Going back to our three examples of well-developed characters mentioned in the previous paragraph, Lestat de Lioncourt’s journeys through immortality as a vampire are character-driven, but his desire to understand the mysteries of life and death and God push him toward outline-worthy new experiences. Drizzt Do’Urden’s journeys are more adventurous than philosophical, so his plot-driven quests can easily be outlined, but his journal entries reflect internally on what he learns about himself, others, and life in the process. And while I’m sure you’re laughing at my inclusion of Winnie-the-Pooh in that list of great characters, I include him as the “plot-less plot” sample — a character-driven story in which the character will remain forever in your memory, and though the conflicts are minor and interchangeable on a day-to-day basis, we remember the game of “Pooh Sticks” and the “Tiddly-Pom” song. 🙂