Stories can either be driven by external or internal conflicts. How the story unfolds will depend on whether the writer wants to focus on the plot or the character.
In this article, we’ll explore the main differences between character driven vs. plot driven stories, two common writing styles in literary fiction. We’ll also include popular examples of each writing style and offer tips and advice on how to write both.
Throughout the article, we’ll cover:
- Character-driven vs. plot-driven: What’s the difference?
- What are character-driven stories?
- What are plot-driven stories?
- How to write character-driven stories
- How to write plot-driven stories
What’s the difference between character driven vs plot driven?
Understanding the difference between plot-driven vs. character-driven stories is essential for authors who want to write a story that will appeal to their target audience.
A target audience is a particular demographic often differentiated by age or preferred genre. One may also identify their target audience by a specific book or author whose work the audience enjoys.
For example, young adults (YA) are a type of target audience, but that can be further divided into YA fans who like Twilight (character-driven) or those who prefer the Hunger Games series (primarily plot-driven).
So, if you want to appeal to fans of Twilight, then you might focus more on writing a character-driven story and vice versa.
What are character-driven stories?
Character-driven stories are those that focus on characters and their development.
The plot is essential, but the story’s progression happens more because of how your protagonist develops as a character. The plot is a carrier of that character’s development, and the focus is heavily on a character’s internal conflict throughout the plot’s unfolding.
Characters are a powerful hook for readers and are often why a given reader recommends a book to a friend. To write a character-driven story, it’s crucial to spend time fleshing out multidimensional, exciting characters that resonate with readers.
Examples of character-driven stories in literature:
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice follows protagonist Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Bennet. This is an example of a heavily character-driven narrative, as we, the reader, learn about the world of upper-class Victorian lifestyle, the setting, and other characters as they relate to Lizzie’s experiences.
Circe by Madeline Miller
We can say that Madeline Miller’s Circe is character-driven because the story centers around the protagonist Circe’s character arc. Throughout the story, we witness Circe grow from a lack of awareness of her power to the realization of it, the ravishing of it, and the taming of it.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
Truman Capote’s classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a prime example of a character-driven story. The narrative follows Holly Golightly, told through her neighbor’s understanding of this erratic, complex, and glamorous protagonist.
Plot-driven stories focus more on plot development than character development.
Character development is still an essential storytelling tool used in this type of narrative, but the overall story is told through the plot’s unfolding.
Writing a plot-driven story requires the writer to consider the story’s world and weave characters, motives, and development into the plot. There is typically more focus on external conflict and events and less on a given character’s internal experiences and inner conflicts.
Examples of plot-driven stories in literature:
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
While the first installment of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games series (The Hunger Games, 2008) is character-focused, the plot is still a significant aspect of the story. It becomes even more center stage in the following two installments (Catching Fire, 2009; Mockingjay, 2010). The exciting plot drives the story forward in this action-packed series.
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Murakami’s 1Q84 is a plot-driven story that follows two protagonists, Tengo and Aomame, as they enter an alternate universe set in the year 1Q84. Characters and their development are essential aspects of the story, but external events and changes within it drive the story itself.
Jurassic park by Michael Crichton
Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park is heavily plot-driven. The story indeed includes exciting characters who develop throughout the plot, but their development is not the element that moves the plot forward. External events, monumental ones at that, force characters to adapt to overwhelming circumstances, and those events make the story progress.
How to write character-driven stories
When you read a character-driven story, what draws you into the story? Why does a story focusing on characters and their development resonate so deeply with you?
Often, the reason for the preference for character-driven plots is that people want to read about people. When an author successfully fleshes out a multidimensional character, readers feel connected to that character.
They can relate to, empathize with, or even judge that character based on their lives and perspectives.
1. Give your characters a strong backstory
As an author, it’s your responsibility to create a rich backstory for your characters. Doing so makes them more real, making it easier for readers to relate to and resonate with your characters.
“I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven.” – Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
To fill in a rich backstory for your characters, conduct an in-depth questionnaire. Interview your character with questions about their childhood, worldview, strengths and weaknesses, and life goals.
The more in-depth you can make this questionnaire, the more multidimensional your characters will become.
Remember to give each character a rich backstory, not just your protagonist.
2. Outline the character arc
Where does the character begin? In what situation or life circumstances do they find themselves at the beginning of the story, and what changes happen to them and within them as the story progresses?
Just as it’s vital to outline plot points in a story, it’s equally important to outline character arcs, especially if you want to write a character-driven narrative.
By drafting even a basic outline, you’ll be able to use that outline as a frame of reference if you hit a wall during the writing process.
3. Emphasize the character’s internal conflicts
In character-driven narratives, the character’s inner conflicts drive the plot forward.
Usually, a character is faced with a difficult decision.
In coming-of-age stories, a popular literary genre and an excellent example of character-driven plots, the protagonist usually must decide to break away from their known world and take a leap of faith into a new way of being. The plot moves forward as the character struggles with the decisions and potential life paths that lie before them.
Even in other genres in which the narrative is character-focused, it’s a character’s inner world and the struggles that ultimately tell the story.
How to write plot-driven stories
What is about plot-driven narratives that make for such compelling stories? Often readers appreciate that characters are formed and shaped by the events in their lives and the plot twists that many plot-driven narratives offer.
If you want a great plot-driven story, then focus on external events and how they shape the character that lives within the story.
It’s also important to not give the game away and maintain some intrigue or mystery throughout the plot’s development so that readers don’t expect the ending entirely.
1. Outline the plot
Outlining is an incredibly effective writing practice that helps you stay on track when you get lost in the story.
It’s normal for a writer to take tangents to the writing process but then hit a wall or fall into a plot hole. A well-crafted outline acts as a framework, a scaffolding or skeleton for your story on which you can develop the story in more detail later.
Mind mapping and bulleting are effective ways to outline a plot.
The main thing to remember when outlining is that your plot should follow a coherent structure. A common outlining and plot development tool is Freytag’s Pyramid, whereby a story is outlined by the following:
- Rising action
- Falling action
2. Use external conflicts to drive the plot forward
External conflict refers to challenging events that usually happen outside of a character’s control but to which they must respond.
Thrillers and mystery stories focus heavily on external events and conflicts, and the themes and nature of these events make a given story stand out in its genre.
As mentioned, external conflict happens outside of your character’s control. As such, character development in the plot-driven narrative approach usually occurs because of how we witness those characters deal with the external conflicts they face.
There is less emphasis on the psychological or emotional state of a given character and more on the battle between an individual and the world in which they live, which is often challenging and unpredictable.
3. Incorporate plot twists
Plot twists and surprise endings are one of the main reasons readers love plot-driven stories. Once you’ve outlined a plot that is coherent and cohesive, explore ways in which you can subvert the reader’s expectations.
A reader will get into the story’s rhythm and begin to expect where it will go. This can soon lead to boredom with the story, so a good plot twist will snap them back to the reality that they don’t know how the story will end, ultimately making them a more engaged reader.
Hopefully, the article above highlighted the critical difference between character-driven and plot-driven storytelling.
If you want to write either, remember that a given story will focus on character and plot, but the primary emphasis is usually on one or the other.