Being a Better Writer: Character Versus Plot

This post was originally written and posted November 10th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Today we’re going to talk about a lesser-considered aspect of storytelling and writing. I’ve bandied about with a few different introductions to the concept and summarily discarded all of them, so instead I’m just going to jump right in and tackle things.

Effectively—and understand that I am for the purposes of today’s concept, grossly simplifying—every story out there, written, told, or seen, rides a sliding scale into one of two categories: They’re either a character-driven piece or a plot-driven piece. That’s it. These are your options, and understanding which your story is going to be, as well as more importantly, how to achieve this, will play a part in determining the success of your work.

Okay, some of you are nodding, some of you are confused, a few are wondering where I’m going with this. So let’s look into this one a little more deeply.

We’ll start with the underlying concept behind these two options: All stories are driven by something. Now, when I say that a story is driven by something, I don’t mean the antagonist, or the inciting incident, or even the growth of the character. What I’m referring to by driven is the events or actions by which the story is pulled forward.

Bilbo leaving Frodo the ring, for example, is something that pulls the story forward. Harry receiving a letter from Hogwarts. Vin being noticed by Kelsier. A story is, in it’s purest, simplified form, a collection of events. But something inside the story must happen in order for these events to occur. Cause and effect.

What I’m discussing today is the method by which the story moves forward. Is it character-derived, or plot-derived?

I see a few of you are still scratching your heads. The simplest, easiest way to describe this idea is to ask what causes the story to continue forward. Is it the characters? Or is it some force outside of the characters? Is the story moving forward because of my character’s actions and choices, or is it moving forward because it needed to move forward so something happened?

Both types of story exist (and, as one would expect, most stories are a blend of both, weighted in one direction or the other). Thriller novels, for example, tend to be driven more often by their plots than by their characters. Events that move the story forward are “Acts of God” or other higher powers which exist for the sole purpose of dragging the characters along from scene to scene. The writer wants a car chase to happen? So he funnels the story towards that end, placing the characters in a situation where there is only one possible answer—car chase.

Stories that focus more on character, however, take a different route. Rather than plot-based forces pulling the story forward, these are stories in which the characters choices are what move things along. Rather than outside occurrences forcing a character to engage in a car chase, this will be a story where the character is given valid options and then chooses to engage in the car chase.

Now, I’m certain a lot of you are simply nodding and thinking to yourselves “Well of course, that makes sense.” And yes, it does. But now we need to consider this question: Which one are you writing?

Because to tell the truth, while your works will undoubtedly have both aspects included in them, each story you write is going to gravitate towards one type or the other, and understanding and acknowledging this in advance will make your work much easier.

For example, take my work on Colony. Colony is a much less character driven work than my last few stories, and it took me a while to realize it (downside of pantsing the story). Much of the major events that control the story are driven not by the character’s choices (with a few exceptions), but rather by outside, plot-driven forces. None of the character’s ever wanted to go to the colony world of Pisces, for example. Instead, they’re press ganged into it by a powerful megacorportation who, while offering them a substantial monetary reward for carrying out their task, really doesn’t give them much in the way of a choice. The other options are so unappealing that it is clear to the characters and the reader both that the only recourse is to accept the job and head for Pisces.

There are other events like this in Colony. But for Colony as a story, that’s all right, because the focus isn’t the character driven elements, it’s how the characters react to being thrown into these situation, and the situations themselves.

Another example of a plot driving: Everyone’s favorite, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry never chooses to be a wizard and start receiving letters from Hogwarts. The letters simply start arriving one day. And then, characters with power outside of Harry’s control determine the reaction (taking the letters away, nailing the letterbox shut, and fleeing to a cabin on an island). Much of the driving force of The Sorcerer’s Stone for the first “act,” in fact, is not character based at all. Harry is pretty much dragged along up until the setting has been introduced, at which point he starts making conscious choices of his own (befriending Ron, for instance, or helping take down a troll). Come to think of it, The Sorcerer’s Stone is probably a pretty good example of the two types and how to juggle them, as the first half of the story is mostly Harry being dragged from point to point, while only after he acclimates to the new setting does he really start making choices of his own that move the story forward.

Knowing which particular style your story is going to serve as the primary driving force of your story before you start will do wonders for how your story turns out. For instance, if you want to write a deep, character focused drama with introspective characters coming to grips with their own lives … and then create a story that is entirely driven by the plot and not by that character, the entire theme and objective of your work will be weakened. Likewise, if you want to write a rollicking action story that never stops, but choose to have much of the story driven by the characters, you’re putting a lot of weight on those characters to make the choices that will continually keep the action-ball rolling. Sure, it can be done, but it’s not easy, especially if those characters start trying to make decisions that would pull away the action-adventure focus.

What does this mean for you? Well, that you need to make a choice before you get too far into any work about exactly which driving force you want to be in control of your story, and then think ahead to how that’s going to change your story. Can you count on your characters to make certain decisions to move the story in the right direction? Or will you need an exterior force, a plot moment, to take control and move things forward? How will it change your story to have such a force interacting with your characters? Will it put the reader’s focus in the wrong area? Will it detract from the theme or moral of your work? A story in which the theme or moral is that we always have a choice, for example, would be rendered ironic by a story in which everything was driven entirely by the plot rather than the characters.

Conscious acknowledgment of what drives our story can be a powerful tool in forming a strong narrative and focus for the reader. For example, look at the storyline of Bioshock. One of that game’s greatest storytelling powers was it’s insistence that the character was the one making the decisions, that the character was driving the story. Only when you reached the twist did you learn that everything the character—and by extension, you—had gone through was in fact, not a decision, but the plot dragging you along and convincing you that your choices were their own when they were not. Bioshock‘s creators built up a powerful narrative based on what observers perceived was a character-driven story, and then brutally tore that construct away at a critical moment while showing the player how willing they had been to believe that it was all them rather than something orchestrated by others. Bioshock ended up being recommended in Time magazine partially because of how well its story juggled these two concepts.

But that’s pretty advanced use of such a tool, so don’t expect to do something like that right away. In fact, don’t expect to need to. What you should expect is to understand what drives the story of your own works. When you sit down at a keyboard or with a pen, ask yourself: What is going to drive this story? Are my characters subject to the whims of the plot? Do they choose their own path? How will this affect the story I have in mind? Will it make it less exciting? More exciting? Should I consider changing my focus between the two in order to strengthen an aspect or theme of my work?

As with many things, either of these alone will not make or break your work. However, a firm understanding of how they work and what they can do for you will, with time, be part of the polish that grants your work an extra shine of quality.

Good luck with your writing, and I’ll see you all next week.

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5 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Character Versus Plot

  1. […] Character Versus Plot— Effectively—and understand that I am for the purposes of today’s concept, grossly simplifying—every story out there, written, told, or seen, rides a sliding scale into one of two categories: They’re either a character-driven piece or a plot-driven piece. That’s it. These are your options, and understanding which your story is going to be, as well as more importantly, how to achieve this, will play a part in determining the success of your work. […]

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