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Character vs Plot-driven stories

Wednesday, December 1, 2021 story character plot plot-driven character-driven

Open book with cartoons of a boat

 

Character vs Plot-driven stories

 

All stories are driven by conflict. All great stories have compelling characters and an intriguing plot. You can have a fantastic plot, but you won’t have much of a readership if the character turns off the readers. Conversely, you can have a terrific main character, but if the MC has nothing interesting to do, the reader will put down your book.

Many genres lend themselves to character-driven stories. In a character-driven story, the character experiences internal and external conflict that forces them to change. They might regress and maladapt leading to a tragedy or they might overcome the conflict and lead to a happy ending. Romances tend to lean heavily on character development because the character needs to address a deep hurt or personal trauma to be in the right heart space and headspace to engage in a romantic relationship.

A character-driven story focuses on the emotional and psychological aspects of making a decision. These books don’t need to be heavy on internals, but they show more thought processes and emotional reluctance to try something new or work towards a goal.

An external event will provoke the need for change, and the rest of the book is spent with the character thinking and feeling their way through the change. Many character-driven books have characters that want to change the status quo even if they aren’t aware they want to change. In many romances, the main character is perfectly content with having a new sexual partner every night. There’s an event that provokes an internal change—perhaps their best friend got married or had their first child, perhaps the death of parent instigates some soul-searching, perhaps it’s an illness and the need to confront their mortality. Whatever the provocation, it creates a need for internal reflection. That’s not to say introspection is easy or comes naturally. A great many books have main characters that don’t want to engage in the kind of internal work that will stop them from making the same mistakes over and over. Their journey in improvements of self-awareness is the book.

Character-driven plots need the following items:

  • An interesting and rich backstory. When the MC addresses one issue from their past, the story can’t end. They need to dig deeper to find the true root of the problem
  • Be presented with obstacles and conflicts that provoke strong emotional responses
  • Be active in addressing internal matters (with increasing self-awareness as the story progresses)

Have a past that addresses a Universal Truth to ensure the readers relate to the characters. A Universal Truth is something that all individuals across cultures and periods can identify as part of the human experience. These include: the fear of being left out, grief, falling short of a dream, cultural norms that you disagree with, and so on

 

Plot-driven stories

A plot-driven story focuses on external events. Plot-driven stories have faster pacing to keep the reader turning pages. Mysteries, thrillers and action-adventure tend to be plot-based. Consider the movie The Edge with Alex Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins. Both characters are compelling, and they are thrust into the harsh Alaskan wilderness. There’s plenty of internal and interpersonal conflict between the men as they brave harsh elements and dangerous wildlife, but it’s external events that drive the plot. The men fly out to hunt bears, but their plane crashes. They test their wits to survive the cold weather, injuries, and hunger while being tracked and stalked by a bear. External events force the characters to respond and adapt.  

In a plot-driven story, the characters didn’t want to change. Circumstances fall on their heads and force change. Consider the beginning of a James Bond film where Bond is perfectly content at a casino, on vacation, or with a woman he’s picked up. A villain commits a crime or is about to commit a crime, and Bond must stop the villain. It’s the same principle with action-hero/heroine movies in which the heroes/heroines are more than happy not to risk their lives protecting others but rise to the occasion every time there is danger.

Excellent plot-driven stories have the following elements:

  • challenges that force the MC to increase their skill sets
  • a worthy antagonist or villain that outsmarts and outmanoeuvres the MC
  • clear external provocations that increase in intensity and complexity of the problems the MC must address

 

I want to thank @DonnaSagerCowa1 for her suggestion on the topic.

Readers can reach me on Twitter @reneegendron

Please note that Seven Points of Contact is a contemporary sports romance with plenty of humour. Release January 22, 2022. I’m looking for advance readers. Here’s an excerpt.

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