What is the difference between character driven vs. plot driven stories—and why does it matter when you’re writing?
Learning about the craft of storytelling is just as important as having a story to tell in the first place. That’s because the way that you tell your story—including whether it’s plot driven vs. character driven—is going to play a big role in how impactful it is for your readers, as well as what they take away from the piece.
We’ll be getting into the basics of both types of storytelling perspectives, but first, a quick breakdown of what sets these two apart: character driven stories are mainly focused on the characters themselves, including their thoughts, arcs, and internal changes, while plot driven stories are mainly focused on events, including action, cause and effect, and external changes.
Put another way, character driven novels, movies, and so on put people first, while plot driven stories put occurrences first. Neither precludes the other (meaning you’ll usually find plenty of plot driven elements in a character driven piece, and vice versa), but they do centralize the focus, and in turn, the way that readers experience the story.
As for what these really look like in practice, there are a number of things to know. Below, we’re diving into the most notable differences of plot driven vs. character driven stories, with plenty of real-world tips that you can use to bring either of these perspectives to the forefront of your next writing project.
What is a Character Driven Story?
Character driven movies, books, and short stories all have one thing in common: they position the struggles and insights of the main characters as the central guiding feature of the piece.
One of the easiest ways to tell if a story is character driven vs. plot driven is to look for the presence of an internal struggle and resolution within the protagonist—also known as a character arc. In character driven movies and novels, the protagonist doesn’t just have things happen to them. Rather, they actively change as a result of the events they face, and the author makes sure that you’re aware of what these changes are.
A story that is character driven is one in which you end up feeling like you deeply know and understand the protagonist. And there are some great examples of this in classic and contemporary storytelling.
Examples of Character Driven Stories
Chances are that you’ve read plenty of character driven stories, and many perhaps without even being aware of it. Here are some great literary examples of this type of story:
- Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
- An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
- The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
- Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
- Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
- Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
- The Secret History by Donna Tartt
- A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Is Harry Potter plot driven or character driven? What about Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings? A good way to figure out the answer is to ask yourself if you were more impacted by the characters than the specific things that they experienced. If so, then the piece was probably character driven (though those examples are a bit of a trick, since you could argue they are both character driven and plot driven, long and wide-spanning as they are).
How to Write a Character Driven Story
Character driven novels and other story formats have a few basic elements. By mastering these, you can start to write from a character driven perspective and develop rich stories that take the reader along on an internally immersive journey.
1. Give Your Character a Backstory
To fully understand a character, you have to be able to put them into context. Giving your character’s a developed backstory will help readers understand how they got to where they are and why they’re reacting in certain ways.
2. Make Sure There’s a Conflict
Just because a story is character driven doesn’t mean that nothing of importance happens. Include a major conflict, but make sure to highlight the inner struggle that occurs as a result and not just the ups and downs of the situation. The story is in the transformation, which itself cannot take place without some sort of tension.
3. Provide Your Character With a Clear Point of View
What does your character think about what’s happening to them? Just as important as providing your protagonist with an internal struggle is ensuring that the reader can follow along with your character as they adapt and change, as opposed to just witnessing the change as an objective outsider.
4. Respect Your Character’s Integrity
The phrase “out of character” really applies here. Don’t have your character do something that’s outside of their nature just as a way to move the story in a certain direction. It will remove authenticity from the story and could even lose you some readers.
What is a Plot Driven Story?
A plot driven story, also referred to as a narrative driven story, is one in which events supersede character development—think plot twists, complex and fantastical world-building, and plenty of action.
Plot driven stories aren’t devoid of characters by any means, but you learn a lot more about what the characters do than what they think. Fantasy and mystery novels tend to fit this perspective well, taking readers on a journey that relies heavily on narrative elements and plot points.
Examples of Plot Driven Stories
If you’re a fan of fantasy, action, sci-fi, romance, or mystery, then you’re probably a fan of plot driven stories. Here are some literary examples that help further explain what this type of story looks like:
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
- Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
- Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
- Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
- The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
- The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
- 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
- The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
Each of these stories is memorable not so much for the characters themselves but for what happens to them. Consequently, you’ll often see plot driven stories as part of a series, with the same characters finding themselves in new and different conflicts.
How to Write a Plot Driven Story
Do you love a story with a good twist? Then you’ll probably enjoy writing narrative driven pieces. Don’t let your characters fall flat in the pursuit of an epic plot, but do follow these quick tips to craft well thought-out plot driven stories.
1. Outline Your Story in Advance
You can definitely let the story take you where it wants to go, but make sure to flesh out the beginning, middle, and end in advance so that you don’t find yourself on a never-ending narrative without a clear pace or stopping point. You’ll also want to plan out any big arcs or twists so that you can subtly work up to them instead of just tossing them in there.
2. Raise the Stakes
A plot that ambles along on an even keel isn’t a plot that’s going to hook your readers. Use action, settings, and characters to move your story along—including in directions that your readers weren’t anticipating. The higher the stakes, the more engaged your readers are likely to be.
3. Include a Twist
Most great plot driven stories include a twist in the narrative. One twisty, turn-y, unexpected plot occurrence is pretty much a guaranteed way to keep your audience invested in your story—and have them talking about it afterward too.
4. Highlight Cause and Effect
Plot driven stories aren’t just a series of events taking place one after the other. There needs to be causality linking them together—i.e. this happened because that happened, not this happened and then this happened. It’s a subtle but important difference, and it will make your narrative a lot more realistic and intriguing.
Now that you’ve got the basics down, it’s time to write. Keep in mind that you don’t have to commit yourself to writing a story that is solely character driven or plot driven. Your plot driven story can (and should) have well-developed characters, and many of the most beloved character driven stories also include a page-turning plot.
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