I’ve heard this tossed around many times. It seems pretty self-explanatory, but I think it makes for interesting discussion, as well as author-reflection on what it is you’re trying to accomplish with your novel.
So here we go.
Plot-Driven stories: Action drives the story forward. The characters get swept up in this action, becoming mere participants as they are placed in various situations. The plot itself impacts the characters, their beliefs, and drives them to development.
Genre novels are very likely to be plot-driven. They may involve a main event such as defeating the bad guy, getting away from newly engineered dinosaurs (name that movie!) or finding a path to the fiery mountain to destroy the ring. The main focus in a plot-driven novel: get out of danger. Stay alive. Accomplish something.
In such a novel, there usually isn’t much time for your characters to reflect on how they feel about their tasks. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t. It just means you as the author must find a way to infuse enough emotion into the action to make the reader interested and keep them reading until they feel a connection to the character. Because, after all, characters are the reason we read.
Characters are endless in their possibilities (something plot is not). This is where the author has an opportunity to make their readers feel something. Make connections. Become an active participant in the novel. So let’s move on to the character-driven novel.
Character-Driven stories: In the character-driven novel, the protag's thoughts, decisions, and coming to some greater understanding drive the story from beginning to end. These things are more important than the action. In a character-driven story, the author builds the plot around the character. As they develop, so does the plot. Notice that. The plot doesn’t develop the character, making them choose between Hard Thing A and Even Harder Thing B. It’s quite the opposite. The character develops in some way, and that in turn advances the plot.
That said, I think creating characters is one of the most important aspects of fiction writing. (See Mary’s post from Monday for some techniques to do this.) We read fiction because we’re looking for something. What? Ourselves. (Feel free to tell me what you’re looking for when you read fiction.) Fantastic plot-driven novels can be riveting, but the stories we’re sucked into are those in which we feel a connection with the characters. Do we understand them? Sympathize with them? Connect to them?
Ultimately, do you see yourself in the character? That’s when the real truth comes out.
So which is better?
The best stories have elements of both. Good fiction grabs the reader with thrilling things happening to people we care about. An author must combine both, so that there is plenty of action intermingled with moments where your characters stand in the spotlight.
Questions to ask yourself:
1. What is the force propelling your story from beginning to end? Is it the characters or what they’re going through?
2. Am I more interested in the story? Or the people within in the story?
3. What do you remember about your favorite books? The plot? Or are the characters what make the story stand out in your mind?
4. Are you a heavy outliner of events? (Plot = important) Or do you focus on character development and allow them to move the action forward? (Character-driven)
In summary, a plot-driven story focuses on action while a character-driven one places the emphasis on emotion and reflection. So you tell me: which focus is better? Or are they equally important? What kind of author are you?