Character Driven vs Plot Driven?

by Terrell
(Columba, MO)

Question: Your website is amazing and I am forever grateful of your insightful and detailed answers. My question is this simple:


What is the difference between a character-driven story, a plot-driven story, and a theme-driven story? Also, can you please give some examples of each?

Also, in each story, what kind of subplot should I use? I hear that in a character-driven story, your subplot should be plot-oriented and vice-versa...Is that true and how would one go about doing that?

Thanks again.

Answer: Often the terms character-driven and plot driven used rather loosely.

In such parlance, character-driven describes stories where the emphasis is on characterization, inner conflict, and relationships. Such stories can have a Goal that is more internal, such as changing an attitude or becoming something.

Literary fiction also tends to be character-driven. Often the story will be a depiction of a character's inner process as they struggle to resolve issues from their past or perhaps change their present attitude. In the absence of a page-turning plot, literary fiction often relies on an intriguing style or an authentic and unique voice to hold a reader's interest.

Plot-driven describes stories where the emphasis is more on plot twists, external conflict, and action. Often the story goals are more external such as obtaining, winning, escaping, or changing a situation.

Dramatica tries to formalize this by saying that there are decision-driven stories and action-driven stories.

In a decision-driven story, the major turning points in the plot will all be decisions. Be-er main characters are most at home in this type of story, because they are comfortable with deliberation. An example (because I've been reading a lot of YA recently) would be The Hunger Games. Romances generally tend to be decision-driven.

In an action-driven story, the major turning points will be actions. Do-er main characters will be more at home in this type of story, because they are comfortable taking action. Star Wars is an example of an action-driven story.

(When in doubt, think of the climax of a story. Is it a decision or an action?)

Of course, a main character can work in a story where they are out of their comfort zone. (For example, the films Kindergarten Cop and Romancing the Stone.) But they will be less willing and may require strong incentive.

Comments for Character Driven vs Plot Driven?

Click here to add your own comments

May 17, 2013
Also
by: Anonymous

But how can you decide whats what? Don't you need to "decide" on something before you can "act" on it? How do you tell one from the other since it appears that in all essence, the main character does both?

May 17, 2013
Also
by: Anonymous

But how can you decide whats what? Don't you need to "decide" on something before you can "act" on it? How do you tell one from the other since it appears that in all essence, the main character does both?

May 17, 2013
Response
by: Glen

I know it sounds a bit like a "chicken and egg" issue. But if you start looking closely at stories, you'll see that stories focused on deliberation tend to have key decisions as the turning points, whereas in stories where plot dominates, the turning points tend to be key actions.

Also, action-driven and decision-driven stories just feel different.

Nov 29, 2013
but are combinations of them possible?
by: Anonymous

can there be decisions and actions, separately or together, that progress the story and the characters?

Nov 30, 2013
Response
by: Glen

Yes, that's how it works. Decisions lead to actions which lead to new decisions which lead to new actions etc.

The difference is the point where the story begins. What action or decision disturbs the equilibrium of the world that causes the rest of the story to result? What action or decision restores the balance in the end? In between these two points, there will be a chain of actions and decisions as the problem is worked out.

Oct 06, 2015
pacing in character driven
by: Laura

Hi -

My book is character driven. The MC starts out fairly depressed and hopeless. As the book progresses, she comes out of it and begins to take charge of her life and make decisions. She makes a bad decision at the end (which leads to sequels :-), but she at least recognizes that she can affect the world around her again. The subplot is more plot-driven.

My problem is this - even when I tell people that it is character-driven, they seem to want it to be plot-driven. They want my MC to be active and going around causing things to happen, and to see page-turning cliffhangers with every scene and chapter ending. It's just not that kind of book, and she's not that kind of character for another couple of books. :-)

How do I explain it to them? Or do I just give up and self-publish?

Oct 06, 2015
To Laura
by: Glen

If your book is less plot-driven, then it may need a unique and authentic voice to hold a reader's interest. If you have that, it's not easy to tell people about it. You may need let them read it.

However, even a work of literary fiction is better with a solid plot. It's just that the emphasis will be different.

If your emphasis is very much on deliberation, then it helps to make the decision challenging. This can be done through mystery or a clash of values or a mass of conflicting evidence or considerations that the main character must sort through.

When it comes to publishing, you want to target agents and publishers who like the type of book you're writing. Do your research to find the right market.

Oct 06, 2015
humorous literary mythic fiction with romance and time travel? lol
by: Laura

I have been told by editors and other writers that the voice is good. I think it has too much humor to fall under literary fiction (though the definition of literary fiction confuses me a bit). It's technically mythic fiction, but that seems to make people want a ton of world building - it's set in Dallas, not some other realm. My book is a bit on the side of magical realism - it's the real world, but people have forgotten that what they call "mythology" was religion at one point, and the gods are real. All of them. However, unlike American Gods, for example, the gods are still active. People just see what they want to see. You create your own reality...
Actually, writing that gave me a good idea for how to "world-build" the fact that there's not any world-building, LOL.
It has a good plot, and it builds with the character's arc. They just can't see that in the first two chapters. I'm rewriting the first chapter, but I don't know how to make her a firebrand who takes action in the first chapter, which is what they want, when that's not who she is.

Oct 07, 2015
To Laura
by: Glen

Not sure if this will help but... sometimes when the beginning of the story is not grabby enough, you can begin at a more intense moment (perhaps the crisis or climax) and then jump back to the beginning and tell the events leading up to the crisis. Essentially, you create a mystery ("How did this situation come about?") and then go back and explain it.

Once you've filled in the past, you can then tell the outcome of the crisis.

Click here to add your own comments

Join in and submit your own question/topic! It's easy to do. How? Simply click here to return to Plot Invite.


 Step-by-Step Novel Planning Workbook


NEW! Make Money Writing Nonfiction Articles


"I've read more than fifty books on writing, writing novels, etc., but your website has the most useful and practical guidance. Now that I understand how a novel is structured, I will rewrite mine, confident that it will be a more interesting novel." - Lloyd Edwards



"Thanks to your "Create a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps," I was able to take a story that I simply just fooled around with and went willy nilly all over, into a clearly defined, intriguing battle where two characters fight to keep their relationship intact, and try to find a balance in control of themselves and their lives. Thanks to you, I'm not ashamed of the poor organization of my writing." - Nommanic Ragus

"I am so glad I found your site. It has helped me in so many ways, and has given me more confidence about myself and my work. Thank you for making this valuable resource, for me and my fellow writers. Perhaps you'll hear about me someday...I'll owe it to you." - Ruth, Milton, U.S.A.

"I never knew what to do with all the characters in my head, but since discovering Dramatica I am writing again in my spare time. Thank you for making this available. Yes, it is a bit complex, and it does take time, but I love it because it works." - Colin Shoeman

"I came across your website by chance. It is a plethora of knowledge, written in a simplistic way to help aspiring writers. I truly appreciate all of the information you have provided to help me successfully (relative term) write my novel. Thank you very much!" - Leo T. Rollins

"I can honestly say that this is the first website that is really helpful. You manage to answer complex questions in relatively short articles and with really intelligent answers. Thank you for taking the time to write these articles and sharing them so generously." - Chrystelle Nash

"...had no idea that a simple click would give me such a wealth of valuable information. The site not only offered extremely clear and helpful instructions but was a very enjoyable read as well. The education from your wonderful site has made me a better writer and your words have inspired me to get back to work on my novel. I wish to give you a heartfelt thanks for How to Write a Book Now, sir." -- Mike Chiero