Character Driven Novels –Versus- Plot Driven Novels
Story, for me, stems from character. "If you allow them to do what they’re going to do, think and feel what they’re going to think and feel, things start to happen on their own" (Andre Debus III). How do we get there? First, recognize the difference between character-driven stories and plot-driven stories, because once again, your genre determines how much or how little of your character's story happens within the character and how much is external. Then, learn to characterize your hero, observe human nature, and immerse yourself in the characters you create.
“If you aren't familiar with these writing styles, here is a quick overview: Character-driven writing is focused on the characters and the internal change, more so than the events and situations that take place while plot-driven writing is focused on the actual happenings and the external changes of the story” (Dorrance Publishing, 2014).
Character driven novels are stories that emphasize:
Most literary fiction is considered character driven because the emphasis is not on the action, but on the choices the character makes and how it affects the world/people around him.
Recently I came across Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story by John Yorke in which he posits that all writing boils down to one story: “A dangerous monster threatens a community. One man takes it upon himself to kill the beast and restore happiness to the kingdom.” A character driven story will focus on the hero (or the monster). Why does he go after the monster? What internal struggles bring him to take on the beast? How does his journey affect his relationships, say with a team, family, or love interest?
Examples of character driven books: The Fault in Our Stars; The Help; Catcher in the Rye; To Kill a Mockingbird.
Plot driven novels are stories that emphasize:
These stories follow an interesting dilemma. Going back to our Yorke quote, how does that affect the plot driven novel where the story focuses on the action? What plot twists will surprise the hero? Think Star Wars: “Luke, I am your father.” The external conflict is saving the world and avoiding death and dismemberment by the beast. We don't look very deep into Luke's psyche to see how that changes the character and how he deals with it internally.
Examples of plot driven novels: The Maze Runner, the Harry Potter books, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the Bourne books.
A Healthy Combination:
Most novels are a healthy combination. As the Kristen Lamb quote says, “The key to creating better plots is a deeper understanding of character.” People do not act randomly but out of their own history. Understand the character, and you’ll understand the choices he makes. In fact, the worse the choices, the better the conflict.
Most of my suspense work is very plot driven, yet I always start with the character. Why? If you’re going on a road trip, don’t you want to know the driver first?
How to improve characterization
Just as a method actor immerses himself into a character for film, a writer can and should live the story from within the character’s skin. Doing so allows you to skip the dilemma of “what would this character do,” because you’re living the story, what you see, the words you choose, the setting, mood, and tone, all begin with that character you envisioned.
Rather than a writing prompt, in the group this month, we did a short meditation and wrote where the words took us.
Close your eyes. Let the picture surround you. A person stands at the edge of a lake. You decide what they look like, gender, age, location. Immerse yourself in this character at the edge of the lake. What time is it? Season? What do you notice about the environment? Now go deeper. What brought the character the edge of the lake? Now you notice they're holding something in their hand. What is it? What happens next.
After a few minutes of meditating on the image, write for ten minutes and post your result in the comments. For those in writer's group this week, you can post it here and for those who missed, here's your chance to "mingle" with your 21C writers. Feel free to comment on other writer's work.
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Writer, college professor, lover of story, fan of all things bookish. Plus chocolate, because who doesn't love chocolate.