Have you ever read a book that has kept you gripped throughout with its twisty or unique plot structure?
Or perhaps you have been enthralled by a character-led story, that has fully engaged you in the minds and imaginations of others?
In this expert guide, we will explore the differences between character and plot-driven stories, learn how to decide which one to use, and we’ll provide some tips to ensure you are using these methods in the best way possible.
Hopefully, by the end of this guide, you will be able to recognise the difference between character and plot-led stories and be able to use these skills to make your writing even stronger.
What Is A Character-Driven Story?
In short, a character-driven story is one where the focus will be more on character development than on the plot.
In these stories, you are more likely to feel fully engaged with the character and become more focused on their personal journey.
In a character-led story, the emphasis is on the character’s emotions and the reasons why they make the choices and decisions that they do.
How then, does this differ from a plot-driven story?
What Is A Plot-Driven Story?
In plot-driven writing, the story will be more focused on action, with a developed and exciting plot.
As a reader, you will be drawn into the action and the twists and turns of the changing circumstances that influence and motivate the characters.
So how do you choose between writing a character-driven story versus a plot-driven one?
Plot Driven Vs Character Driven: Choosing Between Them
The key difference between a plot-driven story and a character-driven one is that in a character-led narrative, the focus is more on the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist and the decisions that they make. Whereas, in plot-driven narratives, the action and occurrences that unfold will be the main point of focus.
When writing character-driven stories, the plot is the mechanism used to develop character, and in plot-led stories, the character is used to view and comment on the plot.
Very often the type of genre that you are writing will help you decide whether your story would work better as a plot-driven, or character-driven piece.
Many crime and thriller books tend to be plot-driven, as they are focused on the turn of events occurring around the character. Sci-fi and mystery books also tend to lean into the plot-driven space.
In literary fiction, the emphasis is often on character-driven stories which develop interesting and compelling characters.
However, it is important to remember that there are no rules to this and there are always exceptions.
Here are a few things that you might wish to consider when deciding whether your story should be plot-driven or character-driven.
- What genre are you writing in?
- What is your usual writing style – do you like to develop your characters in depth, or are you more drawn to the action and environment?
- What are the overall messages and themes of the story? What would you like your reader to take away and learn? Something about the character’s growth? Or something about the events and actions that surround them?
- What type of books do you most enjoy reading?
Plot-Driven Story Examples
Below are some examples of excellent plot-driven stories:
Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
Gone Girl is a twisty, pacey thriller that relies on its dark and enticing plot to keep its readers on edge. Tension is built via external circumstances and the characters are very much influenced by the events around them.
The Lord Of The Rings – J R R Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings, like many fantasies, has wonderful world-building and a strong, engaging plot to keep readers engaged. Characters in this story are very much motivated and influenced by external driving forces and the imagined world they exist in.
1984 – George Orwell
1984 is another example of a book where extreme world events and external factors influence and drive the interesting characters of the story, leading them to make certain decisions and actions.
Tips For Writing A Plot-Driven Story
- Focus on the external conflict. What are your characters striving for? What are they up against? What obstacles will they face?
- Focus on the hooks. Where are the plot twists? How can your surprise your reader and keep them hooked?
- Ensure the structure is tight and the plot points are marked out. In a plot-heavy story, you need to ensure that the story arc is carefully considered.
Character-Driven Story Examples
Here are some stories with character-driven plots:
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman
This is a wonderful example of a book that truly focuses on a character’s development – exploring Eleanor’s emotions and internal thoughts and using her moving backstory to drive the story forward.
Brick Lane – Monica Ali
Brick Lane is a wonderful character study, introducing a variety of vibrant and diverse individuals to the reader and exploring the complexity of real-life drama.
Breathing Lessons – Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler is an expert at writing character-led and emotive pieces of work. In this example, we can experience her character’s emotional journey through both reflection and insight.
Tips For Writing A Character-Driven Story
- Focus on the internal conflict. What is your character battling with emotionally? What are their goals? Fears? Desires?
- Create a backstory to ensure that you truly understand your character and can make them more compelling and engaging to the reader.
- Consider your characters’ motivations. What are they looking to achieve in the story? Will their desires be fulfilled?
- Develop a strong voice. In character-led stories, we need to be able to connect strongly with the protagonist. Consider how you can make their voice distinctive and believable.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Is The Difference Between A Plot-Driven And A Character-Driven Story?
In a plot-driven story, the focus is on the action and activity surrounding the character, and a well-developed plot with external conflicts that challenge the main characters is crucial. In a character-driven story, the focus will be on the character’s journey – their thoughts, feelings and emotions, and the inner conflict they are experiencing.
In short, when writing character-led stories – the plot is the device used to develop character, but in plot-led stories, the character is used to view and comment on the plot.
What Is The Relationship Between Plot And Character?
The plot is the device which moves the story forward, and the character embarks on their journey through these plot points – experiencing challenges (both external and internal) and obstacles along the way.
How Can You Tell If A Story Is Character Driven?
You can tell a story is character driven if it’s mainly focused on the character’s internal conflict. You are more likely to experience character-driven writing in literary books and real-life accounts.
Writing Your Story
In summary, it is important, as a writer, to explore the nuances of both character and plot-driven stories to work out which one is the best fit for you. There are no hard and fast rules here. It may be that a character-driven story suits your need to explore the character more fully and produce internal conflict. Alternatively, you might be writing a story that relies on lots of external conflict and finely tuned action points – in this instance, a plot-driven story will possibly suit you best.
It’s important to note that many stories work with a combination of character and plot-driven sections, where there’s character reflection and development leading into moments of more plot-focused work. It might be that a hybrid model suits you better, and many books successfully use this method.
The best thing to do, as a writer, is to experiment and play. Get those words on the page. Plan your next scenes. How do you want your reader to feel, what journey do you want to take them on?
Ultimately, have fun working out if your story is plot-led or character-led. As long as it’s a good story, that’s all that matters.
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