Have you ever struggled with a story idea only to give up because it seems like every plot has already been done? Maybe you focus on character development to make up for a weak or formulaic plot.
Or maybe you focus on plot, only to end up with characters that feel flat, stereotypical, or unsympathetic. But your plot is riveting, and that makes up for lackluster characters.
Some stories are plot-driven: they take us through twists and turns that keep readers glued to a story. Others are character-driven: readers keep turning the pages because they’ve become attached to the characters and need to find out what happens to them. But some of the best stories strike a balance between a compelling plot and intriguing characters.
The most patently plot-driven story I’ve ever read is The Da Vinci Code (aff link). The characters weren’t very developed and their arcs were mediocre. They weren’t memorable, and I never felt particularly attached to them, or even interested in their fates.
But the plot was mesmerizing — a real page-turner packed with puzzles. I couldn’t put the book down and stayed up all night to finish it in one sitting.
Plot-driven stories usually engage our curiosity and stimulate our intellect. They emphasize the events in a story rather than the character’s experiences of those events. Mystery, suspense, and crime stories are often driven by plot; we are drawn into the questions that the story asks and we keep turning the pages until we get the answers: we want to know how to solve a puzzle, who committed the crime, or what will happen after the asteroid plummets into Earth.
Character-driven stories focus on character development, character arcs, and the various struggles and challenges that characters face. We’re less interested in the plot unfolding than we are in how the story’s events affect the characters.
We humans are social animals and are inclined to develop attachments to characters, as long as the narrative provides good reasons for us to care about what happens to them.
When characters are faced with a challenge, we want to see how they rise or fall to the occasion. When they encounter difficulties in their personal relationships, we want to see how they resolve their problems. We want to see them survive or thrive, and sometimes we want to see them fail, as might be the case in a story about an anti-hero.
Because we care about the characters in character-driven stories, we can form deeper attachments to them and the stories they inhabit. Character-driven stories often leave a lasting impression on readers, because they’re based on emotional rather than intellectual interest.
Plot vs. Character: Striking a Balance
Some readers insist that they need a gripping plot to keep them interested. Others say that the best stories are built around characters. And writers are split on the issue too. Some work from a plot outline while others work from character development.
Of course, the best stories make good use of both plot and characters.
Whether plot or characters drive your fiction writing is totally subjective. Each writer must find a style for story development that feels comfortable and produces desired results.
Do you focus more on plot or characters? Do you try to strike a balance? Which kind of stories do you prefer to read? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing!