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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Plot Vs. Character

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?

Elana Johnson writes science fiction and fantasy for young adults. Besides a serious addiction to the Internet, she can never get enough reality TV, Dove dark or reasons to laugh. Click here to visit her blog.


Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Great post, Elana! My recipe for writing tends to be character driven with a bit of plot thrown in for extra flavor. I like how you've broken this down. I'm about 1/5 through my latest novel, and have been struggling a bit with plot vs. character. This post is exactly what I needed!

Scott said...

For me, my stories are normally character driven. It's the things going on with the characters that propel the story forward.

So, Character A has a choice to make that will a) impact his life and b) impact the lives around him. While he can rely on his friends for advice, ultimately, it is the choice Character A makes that will drive the story forward, consequences and all. : )

One of my favorite books is Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay. He effortless interwines plot/character driven into a fantastic piece of literary art. The characters - each and every one - is memorable. Even though there is one main goal for the majority of the lead characters, it is their internal struggles that remain with me long after I have closed the book.

The story, in many ways, is heart-rending, as are the choices of some of the characters. So, it is possible to have the best of both worlds. : )


Bill, the Wildcat said...

I very much agree that great stories need both strong plot and character. No matter how strongly a story is driven by the plot, it cannot be at the sacrifice of the character. As soon as the character does something out-of-character in order to move the plot, the story is ruined.

Likewise, I just don't think plot can be sacrificed in a character-driven story. Something external has to force the internal change. The stories that don't put enough into a plot tend to rely on an unexpected death or some kind of natural disaster. Not to say that these aren't useful tools sometimes, but they're no substitute for a legitimate plot.

Unknown said...

Excellent breakdown! And way to go - make me examine my own book closer *shudder*

My book has a structured plot, I planned it that way - but the plot is carried by the characters. If I had to choose one of the other, I'd say it was character driven.

You asked what do we read fiction for? I don't read it to find myself and I was surprised when I read that. I wonder if that is the norm and I'm an odd ball.

I read fiction to escape. I know exactly who I am in life and I really enjoy reading adventures and stories that transport me to another place, time, or world.

Books are my stress release, my reward and my passion. I love to read but I hate reading depressing or heavy literary pieces - but that's just me. Life is too short to waste it crying.

Great post!

Stephanie said...

I usually write character-driven stories and I'm currently working on something that's gravitating toward being plot-driven and I'm kind of mired in it. I think I've figured out what the sticking point is thanks to this article. Thanks Elana!

Lisa Katzenberger said...

Love this post Elana. When I write, I come up with the character first and then decide what happens to her. Unfortunately, this creates first drafts where nothing really happens! I do a lot of rewriting. But once I've created a character I dig, then I can focus on figuring out what's going on in her life.

When it comes to reading I lean toward more character-driven stories -- think Richard Russo. But sometimes a good, plotty, page-turner does the trick.

Stina said...

Great post, Elana! I've been writing plot driven YA stories until recently. When I switched from YA paranormal to YA contemporary, I realized the new story was character driven, something completely alien to me (that's not to say I've abandoned plot entirely, though).

I started to read a lot more books in my new genre (especially Sarah Dessen) so it was easy for me to see the difference and adjust my writing accordingly.

Well time for me to hit the beach now. My limited Internet time is running out. Ah the joys of vacations.

Alicia said...

The same plot, revisited with different characters, still falls short with me. I'll read one girl turned fairy story or vampire in love story, but that's it. I need a new plot to stay interested.

I agree, engaging characters make all the difference, but without the external forces driving the characters, they still fall flat for me. No character is an island. Well, except maybe Tom Hanks.

Jen said...

I like to have at least an outline, or a vague idea of what's going to happen, then I develop the characters based on that. With the plot in mind I have somewhere to start out, but the characters influence and change the plot as they go along.

Tess said...

I know I write more character driven stuff but I try mightily to make it more plot driven. I just think those stories are FUN.

Great breakdown, btw.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting you say we read fiction to find ourselves. I think that's just one of many reasons to read fiction. Personally, I read to escape. I know who I am, and I'm more intrested in who other people are. Every good writer and every great story finds ways to connect with many people, but that doesn't mean that we're all in it to see ourselves IMHO. Just that the human experience is both broader and narrower than we give it credit for.

When I read, I want to explore something new with someone new. I would never want to read a book about myself--it would be SO boring lol.

I don't write for just plot or character. I write for both. They are intertwined for me and I see no benefit to separating them. That could lead to pointless and false assertions like one is better than the other, or inherently more valuable, when in fact they simply reflect differing approaches to a craft that allows for individual expression in a unique way.

My favourite books like--Dune, It, Little Women, The Narnia series and Battlefield Earth all have character and plot in droves. That's what I hope to do. Tell stories. Tell stories with unforgettable characters and circumstances. If I succeed, I'll capture the audience's attention and their heart. Why settle for only one when you can have both?

Unknown said...

As I write genre fiction, when a story idea pops into my head it's a plot-driven general idea. However, I don't structure it beyond that - I then find out who the main character is and they change the plot as they go along, often surprising me in the process. It's much more fun that way - I don't want to know the ending before it happens, even when I'm the one writing it. :)

Eva Ulian said...

What a lovely post Elana. All my stories, novels (not published) are character driven, of that I am sure.

Suzette Saxton said...

Thank you for making it all so clear!

Ryan S. Kinsgrove said...

Thanks for the great post Elana even though your not supposed to be blogging this week.

I find that my work is typically character driven, and I often gravitate towards reading works that are more character driven than plot driven.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy plot driven stories too, but I connect better with character driven work.