What Is The Difference Between A Plot-Driven and Character-Driven Story?

Most stories tend to be predominantly either character-driven or plot-driven. 

That’s not to say that plot-driven stories ignore character-building altogether or that character-driven stories have no plot, but you’ll usually find that most stories lean one way or the other.

When it comes to choosing to write a character-driven vs. plot-driven story or vice versa, you have some things to work out before you can make your decision and get writing.

In this article, we will talk about the differences between character-driven and plot-driven stories and give you our best tips on how to write both types of stories.

What is a Plot-Driven Story?

In a plot-driven story, the book moves forward because of the action and events in the book. 

Some stories can come across as though the characters are only there to serve the plot, and we might find out little about them beyond how they react to what’s going on in the story. 

However, really well-done plot-driven books do have great characters with depth who learn and grow over the story. We shouldn’t dismiss plot-driven books simply because the focus is on the action.

Characters do still play a big part, but when writing or reading these stories, it’s more usually the case that characters react to the events of the plot with a focus on what is happening in the story, more often than why. 

These stories are generally about driving the characters from their starting point all the way to the end, quite often at a breakneck pace.

You’ll tend to find that many plot-driven stories are genre fiction, such as thrillers, mysteries, science fiction, space opera, horror, action-adventure, and more.

This can be helpful when deciding whether you’re working on a plot-driven or character-driven book yourself.

How to Write a Plot-Driven Story

If your book is plot-driven, it won’t be much of a surprise to hear us say that you need to focus on your plot, in particular, to pull this kind of story off and do it well.

Here are six steps to help you get to grips with a plot-driven story and produce a quality book:

1. Plan out your book.

It’s very difficult to write a quality plot-driven book without actually planning it out. Sorry, pantsers.

You can get away with an outline and a list of the main beats of the story to a certain extent if you really can’t deal with plotting your story fully because you prefer to wing it. But you will do better if you have a proper plan.

Think about the usual points in the story, such as the inciting incident, the mirror moment, and the climax and hang your story on those.

You’ll find your story has better pacing and that you can more easily make it work.

2. You need high stakes.

For a plot-driven book to really work, you can’t afford to forget the stakes. Your protagonists must have something big to lose. That might be personal to them if a family member is kidnapped or threatened.

It may be city-wide, like a serial killer story, or even a threat to the whole planet if you’re talking apocalyptic novels or science fiction.

You have to get your readers to care and root for your characters; the stakes help you do that. More importantly, with high stakes, you get the breathless page-turning effect for your readers, where they can’t wait to find out what happens next.

3. The action must be connected.

When you’re planning your book, the events must follow naturally from the story. It shouldn’t sound like “this happened, then this happened, then this happened,” but more like “this happened, then this happened because of it.”

Every event should be related and part of the plot in some way.

4. Don’t forget your plot twists.

Readers love a good plot twist, and with a plot-driven story, it’s a great idea to confound your readers’ expectations or bring in something they just didn’t see coming.

But you do need to plan these to do them well. Take care to include these in your plot, so you know where the story is ultimately going.

5. Focus on external conflict.

Your plot isn’t moving because Character A grew as a person. There might be some of that in your story, and there should be if you want it to be fully developed, but your story, in this case, comes from the conflict that’s happening to the characters, not inside them.

Keep that at the front of your mind as you write.

6. Keep your structure tight.

You can’t afford woolly parts of the story that really don’t have anything to do with the plot and don’t drive it forward.

Keep your eyes on the conclusion of the story and only include what’s going to get you there. You can always go back and edit later if you think your story will benefit from some quieter moments or less plot-driven moments.

Examples of A Plot-Driven Story

We’ve given you several different examples below of plot-driven stories, describing why they are plot-driven rather than character-driven.

1. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

We’ve all seen the movies, but those movies were originally a series of three books, Jurassic Park, The Lost World, and Jurassic World. In each one, there’s non-stop action because these books are very much thrillers, though not about the usual serial killers or “whodunnits.”

Here we have dinosaurs brought back from the dead and roaming the Earth again. Someone with clearly more money than sense decides that they’ll set up an amusement park with live dinosaurs, and, of course, things do not go to plan.

2. The Last 10 Seconds by Simon Kernick

Described as “a race-against-time bestseller from the UK’s answer to Harlan Coben,” this book starts with a bang and doesn’t let up until the very last page.

It’s a rattling good thriller about a killer known as the Night Creeper and the detective trying to hunt him down.

That’s not to say there’s no character insight or development. This is book five of a series about Kernick’s detective, Tina Boyd, and we do learn more about her over the course of this book and the series, but the focus is firmly on the plot.

3. Any of the James Bond novels

If you’re looking for a series of books where the main character tends to stay the same throughout, then the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming fit the bill nicely.

Ian Fleming was in the Royal Navy during World War II and also controlled 30 Commando, a specialist commando unit. 

If James Bond seems at all realistic, despite the movies of the books, it’s because the man who wrote them had the personal experience to back this character up. In these books, the action very much drives the plot.

4. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Robert Langdon is an interesting character, there’s no doubt, but the action starts right away with the murder of the curator inside the Louvre in Paris, and it really doesn’t let up until the very end.

It’s a great thriller, and the characters still have enough to them to be interesting, but it’s the action and the mystery that keeps us reading and turning the pages.

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What is a Character-Driven Story?

In a character-driven story, the focus is on the internal workings of your main character or characters. In romance, for example, some stories show the inner thoughts of both main characters as they start to fall for each other.

In these stories, the plot moves forward because of misbeliefs and internal conflicts, and quite probably by misunderstandings and lack of communication.

It’s not just about what the characters do but why they do what they do.

You’ll focus on the character arc of your main character and look at how they develop and grow over the whole story. And that change and transformation are what keep the story flowing and the reader reading.

1. Get to know your characters.

And by that, we mean really well. Write character sheets, and interview them. Interview their friends about them. Put them in different scenarios and see how they react.

You might find that it’s more important here to spend additional time working on your characters before you even look at your plot.

2. Create character arcs.

Work out your starting point for your characters and then track their character arc throughout the story to see how they’ve changed by the end.

Then as you write your story, keep to that character arc and let it take the plot along.

3. Give your character some depth and backstory.

You didn’t just leap into existence yesterday, and nor did your characters. You need to know what happened to them before the story started, especially if there’s anything big in their past that impacts their present.

Work hard on your backstory, even if you aren’t planning to share all of it, or even any of it, with your readers.

It’ll give your characters much more depth and help you get to know them better.

4. Give your characters internal conflict and complexity.

Just as your characters are affected by external conflict in a plot-driven novel, they are impacted by internal conflict in a character-driven story. In fact, the internal conflict is so often what helps to drive the plot in these stories.

Your character likely has some negative traits to get over and perhaps a major misbelief to sort out before they can get what they want. Work out what those traits and misbeliefs are for a much stronger story.

5. Give your characters a clear voice and viewpoint.

In character-driven novels, we see the story through the eyes of the main character, and it needs to be extremely clear who they are, how they sound, and what their viewpoint is.

Are they happy with the way things are going? What do they think about what’s happening in the story? You need to know that so that the reader also knows that.

6. Don’t forget that you still need a plot.

While most of the plot points and actions in the story come from your characters, you do still need a good story with a strong plot.

It’s just as important to take the time to work out what happens in your story and when, as well as to look at your major plot points and turning points leading up to your story climax as it would be in a plot-driven story.

Examples of a Character-Driven Story

Here you can explore four very different examples of books with character-driven stories. Can you think of any more?

1. The Woolworths Girls by Elaine Everest

There are hundreds of stories like this, and they are very popular. There is definitely a proper plot following the girls in question through what happened to them during World War II, but this story is character-driven from the start. 

We follow the lives of the women in this book and the rest of the series, seeing them experience joy and tragedy.

2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Obviously, there is a plot to Pride and Prejudice, but for the most part, this is a character-driven book. If there hadn’t been misunderstandings – some deliberately made by George Wickham – between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, there wouldn’t be anything much to read.

We see the world through Elizabeth’s eyes and watch how she changes as a person and changes what she believes and how she feels over the course of the book.

3. Staying at Daisy’s by Jill Mansell

This is a romantic comedy, and it’s character-driven from start to finish. The plot is all about the “will they, won’t they?” relationship between Daisy and “cocky sports hero Dev Tyzack.” 

There are plenty of amusing happenings during the book, dealing with wedding guests at the hotel where the story is set, but without the two characters as they are, the story simply couldn’t have happened.

4. Buttercream Bump Off (Cupcake Bakery Mysteries 2) by Jenn McKinlay

This one is included here because although there is a murder mystery to solve, and it’s done very well, so much of how the book moves forward and how the main characters solve the mystery is because of who they are. 

Not only is there the main plot of the mystery to enjoy, but we also find out about the two main characters and their best friend, along with hints of romance. We’d say this one manages to be both plot-driven and character-driven.

Final Thoughts

You’ve read our tips and looked at our examples. So, what have you decided? Character-driven vs. plot-driven doesn’t have to be your only choice.

Like our last example, perhaps you write better when you have a blend of the two to make a full and satisfying story.

Either way, put our tips to good use when crafting your own stories.

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