Plot-Driven vs. Character-Driven Stories

a character leaving his book

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Great stories come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. Some writers tell fascinating stories that lead the reader through intricate plot twists while others delve deep into a character’s evolution from first word to final sentence.

Knowing the difference between plot-driven and character-driven stories can help you become more effective as a writer, and being mindful of each approach can help you focus on telling the most engaging and unique story in the style that best suits you.

What is a plot-driven story?

A plot-driven story is one where the narrative is most deeply focused on the actions that characters take; the external conflicts they create and navigate; what they do in reaction to the world around them; and how the world around them reacts to them. Of course, plot-driven stories can feature richly-portrayed character development — but the main focus is on what’s happening outside the characters’ heads, not inside.

What is a character-driven story?

A character-driven story is a study of inner lives and evolutions. What’s going on under the surface with a character and why do they make the choices they make? What haunts them and compels them? What makes them feel peace and comfort? How do they grow and change from a flat to a round character? Do they grow and change at all? These are all questions that a well-crafted character-driven story can seek to answer.

Key differences between plot-driven and character-driven stories

While plot-driven and character-driven stories can share many common characteristics, here are a few qualities that make each approach unique.

  • Character-driven stories highlight characters’ inner lives, while plot-driven stories focus on their outer lives.
  • Plot-driven stories revel in events and happenings between characters, or between characters and the worlds they inhabit, while character-driven stories can look at how characters struggle and make choices within themselves.
  • Plot-driven stories can often fall into more activity-oriented genres like adventure, science fiction, fantasy, crime, or mystery, while character-driven stories often fall more into the category of literary fiction. (Note: there are no hard and fast rules here, and there are plenty of exceptions to these generalities.)

Focus of the narrative

Depending on whether you’re trying to write a character-driven or plot-driven story, you may want to focus your narrative more in one direction than another.

Character arc and character development are key aspects of nearly any story, but it takes on a different flavor depending on whether your narrative is character- or plot-driven. For a character-driven novel, character development is the crown jewel, something to be examined and explored on its own merit.

For a plot-driven novel, character development often happens more in service of compelling events happening around the character rather than inside of them; those internal developments can still be important and worthy of lots of attention from the writer, but they aren’t the primary reason for a story to exist in the first place.

Similarly, pacing and structure of a story can change depending on whether a story is plot- or character-driven. Plot-driven stories are often faster-paced and structured to create momentum, tension, and release; character-driven narratives can be more contemplative and reflective — more set on exploration than action.

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Examples of plot-driven and character-driven stories

Successful stories have been written that are both plot-driven and character-driven to inspire character growth. Here are just a few:

Plot-driven writing

  • J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series focuses on magical adventures within a world of juicy puzzles and fascinating plot twists.
  • In the Hunger Games series, Suzanne Collins leads her readers through trials, tribulations, and triumphs as relatable heroes battle unjust circumstances.
  • The Ender’s Game series by Orson Scott Card explores power dynamics, politics, war, and genocide in this darkly thrilling sci-fi saga.
  • JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings focuses on epic plot lines featuring the battles, quests, and alliances of humans and elves, wizards, dwarves, orcs, and more.

Character-driven writing

  • The Great Gatsby paints a portrait of a fascinating man struggling to grasp something unattainable.
  • Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea has a straightforward plot, within which he writes a brilliant examination of the protagonist’s inner life.
  • Catcher in the Rye looks at the main character’s disaffections, discontents, and growth as a young man.

Tips for writing plot-driven and character-driven stories

When it comes to writing great plot-driven and character-driven stories, one basic principle applies across the board: write a story that you would love to read.

If you’re looking to publish a plot-driven story and need to create a narrative that compels your reader, think about what could happen to and around your characters that would excite, intrigue, unnerve, or distress you — and then ask yourself what would happen next, and next after that. Approach crafting your story with a sense of wonder and adventure, and see what twists and turns come of it.

If you’re going deep into a character-driven story, it can help to think of your character as a cathedral you’re building. What are your character’s strengths and weakness, desires, and aversions? Which joints and beams and materials are most robust, and which are most likely to crumble? What tortures them and what delights them?

The more detailed the structure of your character you can construct, the more accurately you can imagine what happens within that character throughout your story.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. I delight in the unfolding of our humanness. The Bible says we are wonderfully and horribly made. I believe many of us would agree. Good poetry both ignites my passion and often soothes my anxious wonder. A good story is a gift.

  2. Philip, thank you for this in-depth post. I’m still trying to determine if my historical fiction sequel is plot or character driven. I have specific events; Civil Rights Movement. Woodstock 1969. Vietnam War. Plus death of a best friend. The main character gets involved personally with the events. And she’s the one who chooses to get involved with these events. And her internal feelings reflect the conflict and tension while involved. It almost sounds balanced between plot & character driven. What are your thoughts? If you have enough info to determine it. Christine

  3. Well put and clear. One can’t really have a good plot-driven story without attention to character development. Both elements need each other to a degree.

    I write hard SciFi (for now) and my stories are more about examining concepts and humanity. So, while my main characters have over-arching goals which develop and continue on throughout the series, their personalities and situational evaluations strongly affect the trajectory of the main and sub-plots.

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