Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Plot vs Character

What’s the most important thing to a story – plot or character?
Ask any author and you’ll get a different response.

Robert McKee states “We cannot ask which is more important, structure or character, because structure is character; character is structure. They're the same thing, and therefore one cannot be more important than the other. Yet the argument goes on because of a widely held confusion over two crucial aspects of the fictional role - the difference between CHARACTER and CHARACTERIZATION.”

To many writers, the terms “character-driven” and “plot-driven” imply that one is less important than the other. Is a plot-driven story devoid of strong characters and motivations? In a character-driven story, is the plot stuffy, boring, and unimportant?

Many people draw the distinction based solely on genre, that is, that all literary fiction is character-driven and all genre fiction is plot-driven. But is that true?

The difference between plot-driven or character-driven really depends on the focus of the story.

Jeni Chappelle also wrote an article on this. Here’s an excerpt.

Plot-driven stories focus on external conflict and action. The goals of the protagonist are external: get away from the zombies, keep the bad guy from killing innocents, or catch the murderer and solve the mystery.

Character-driven stories focus more on inner conflict, characterization, and relationships between characters. The main character’s goals are internal: overcoming grief and learning to live again, mending a broken marriage, or coping with personal shortcomings.

A good story will certainly have some of both, but there is almost always a heavier focus on one over the other.

Here’s Donald Maass’s opinion. Plot, to me, is shorthand for the sequence of external, observable events that comprise a story.  It’s the things that happen.  And unless things happen it’s hard to give a story impact.

What many authors need are stronger events.  Most pull punches, underplay and basically wimp out.  Strong story events feel big, surprise readers and even shock them.  There are ways to do that deliberately.  One is magnifying events, both in their outward, observable sense and in their inner impact.  For instance, you can work backward to make a certain event a protagonist’s worst fear.  Better still, you can take something a protagonist must do and make it something that character has sworn *never* to do.  Or you can work with an event’s consequences, finding unexpected damage to inflict or unlooked for gifts to give.  There are lots of ways to make events strong.  A string of strong events is what we call a great plot.

My take is you can’t have one without the other. If great characters don’t have a plot, goals and challenges to overcome – there’s no story. And if you have a fantastic plot and cardboard characters, no one’s going to care what happens to them. I like the idea of character driven or plot driven and which one depends on the focus of the story. A good story has great characters and a great plot and the story will be driven by the d focus.

What’s your opinion – character or plot?


  1. Oh, I'm a character writer - all the way! But I write what is almost biographical stories - very slice of life. To me, what is in the heads of my characters is what moves the stories. I write romance, but frequently it's the character that must come to grips with their own issues rather than overcoming some external problem. A chosen career will always make certain demands on time, etc. That's not going to change - not in today's world. And people are what they are. People don't really change. It's the characters that must make mental allowances to find that forever bliss. It's a psychological walk with the characters and how they overcome the obstacles in their path.In my books the plot is subtle (from here to happiness) and the characters are everything!

    1. Great comments and so true. Thanks for dropping by and sharing your comments, E.

  2. I agree with Robert McKee. You can't separate plot from character. An explosive plot means nothing if you don't care for the characters. Likewise, great characterization is diminished if the story goes nowhere.
    One problem maybe that if too much time is spent developing the external conflict, it doesn't leave enough time to develop characterization. It definitely takes a skilled writer to pull off both and do it well.

    1. Good points. I hadn't thought about the time spent developing one or the other. I agree you have to be skilled to pull it off. Thanks Connie.

  3. I like how you explain the differences. I often focus on the characters in my writing and let them drive the action or plot!

  4. Thanks Melissa. It sounds like yours are character driven plots.