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  • Writer's pictureA.R. McNevin

Story driver; plot or character?

I encountered this question online recently; two (or more?) individuals discussing which was better; plot-driven or character driven stories. To which I said, have you enter encountered a plot-driven story?

For me, plot is an emergent property of the conflict between the different desires of the different characters (which themselves are a property of world building - world building is all). The decisions those characters make become the plot.

That's it. An entire class of writing 101 distilled into about forty words. Everything is, in one way or other, character driven.

One of the debaters suggested that, if a story has a lot of action, this makes it plot-driven. How so? If a story has lots of actions, what are the sources of those actions? Other characters, right? One character makes this decision and that other character reacts to it and then a third and fourth characters make decisions based on the outcomes of those actions, and so on, and so forth.

Even if what matters to the reader is a character or a plot, you can't describe a character (sufficiently?) without referring to their actions and their impact (greater or lesser) on the plot and you can't describe a plot without describing it through the vector of the characters embroiled in the plot(s).

Try it; can you describe a "plot-driven" story without using characters, even if it is just through the lens of the character(s)?

But perhaps, you may look at an epic story as plot-driven. Surely the Lord of the Rings or a Song of Ice and Fire are plot-driven? Not so, I would say. While many of the characters are subject to "the plot", having no control or very little influence over "the plot", someone, somewhere set that plot in motion. Maybe the protagonists, even some or all of the antagonists, believe they don't have the power to change things, but as a wise man once wrote, "we always have a choice. We only tell ourselves we don't have a choice to convince ourselves about a choice we have already made."

The protagonist can do something, or they can refrain from doing the thing that everyone expects them to do. The fact that they do the thing that is expected doesn't mean they didn't make a choice to do that thing. The non-gender specific royal enters into the loveless arranged marriage because it is the best thing for their people. There were plenty of options they could have taken, so deciding to do the thing that was expected doesn't rob them of agency. Indeed, it may be an excellent example of that character's agency.

Another way of looking at it would be thusly. A little regression through the lore of that epic story and (dollars to donuts) you'll find a character making a decision with set off the chain of events leading to the "present day" tale. From heroes of yore winning or losing that epic battle to gods doing benevolent or capricious things.

The protagonist character may have no control in the narrative, may be "swept up by the force of history" but someone else did have control. The plot was started by a character, influenced by a character and will ultimately be ended by a character. Maybe the same one; maybe completely different ones.

Also, as a side note, the vast majority of such epic tale protagonists grow to a point of being able to effect the narrative. It's a common underlying theme.


As a coda to this, I did see plot-driven described as focusing on plot (obviously!) & external conflicts while character-driven being focused on character (duh!) & internal conflicts. This, to me, is a distinction without a difference. The definition of character-driven as focused on internal conflicts, sure, that works, until you introduce it to the outside world. Those internal conflicts will be influenced by other characters. Their loves of someone else, their hatred of someone else. How those internal conflicts create, effect or change the plot means that the internal doesn't stay internal for very long.

And if you define the plot-driven story as those which focus on external conflicts where, you encounter a similar problem. Who are having these external conflicts? External to what? Even if you say that these conflicts are army vs. army, country vs. country, religion vs. religion (or religion vs. science), they are all expressed (via the narrative) as person vs. person.

I also saw a suggestion that stories can be theme-driven, which I also don't buy. A story can use themes lightly or hammer them home, they can use conflicting themes to help tell the tale, but at the end of the day, it is the people in the stories, the characters from antagonist to protagonist and all the little people in-between who do the actual driving.

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