Plot-Driven writing vs. Character-Driven writing

Mariajauthor/ February 17, 2020/ The Writing Craft/ 0 comments

The discussion around plot-driven writing vs. character-driven writing is an important one, so I thought it could be a fun topic to think about. If you’re unfamiliar with the terms, here’s a quick overview:

Character-driven writing is when the heart of the story is all about the character. Their story, how they relate to others and to the world and the decisions they make, to the point where if a character changed a decision or acted in a different way, then the story would end up entirely different. Far less emphasis therefore is placed on the action or events.

A good example of a character-driven story would be one of my favourite films of all time, The Road to Perdition (originally a graphic novel by Max Alan Collins). Mike Sullivan, played by Tom Hanks, is a gangster in 1931 who must flee with his son Michael Jr after Michael witnesses a murder.

The plot to this movie is exceptional and its tragedy early sets events in motion, but really at the heart of this story is the character of Mike and his relationship to his son. The movie is about what choices Mike Sullivan makes as a character and the turmoil he faces trying to protect his son whilst also seeking vengeance/justice for what has been done to him. It’s also about the two characters really getting to know each other.

Plot-driven writing, on the other hand, is all about the events that happen to a character. It might feature more twists and turns, or even be described as a rollercoaster. The characters are secondary to the development of the action. You see how they react to things, but you don’t perhaps get the same delve into the heart of a character in plot-driven writing. This style might happen more often in thrillers, horror or fantasy.

A good example of a plot-driven story would be in my favourite horror movie The Others. Nicole Kidman stars as Grace, a woman isolated in a large house just after the end of WW2. Her two children have an extremely dangerous sensitivity to light, so they must be kept in darkness. After the arrival of 3 visitors who claim to want to work at the house, unusual things start happening and Grace begins to suspect the house may be haunted.

PS I love this movie because it’s a classic horror movie, in the sense that there is no violence and 90% of it is about atmosphere, with a few bits that make you jump. Unlike the blood and gore that seems to accompany most horror movies nowadays!

You do get to know a bit about Grace as a character as the film goes on e.g. what happens to her husband or in particular the relationship between Grace and her daughter. Really, however, the heart of the movie is the plot – Grace’s quest to discover what is going on in her house, who the visitors are and to protect her two children at all costs.

Interestingly the two films above have similar motivations – parents protecting children from events. However, Mike’s story is character-driven, Grace’s story is all about the plot. In theory you could replace Grace with another character and possibly have a very similar story, but if one were to remove Mike Sullivan, the story would be entirely different.

Of course, it’s worth saying that a writer needs to have a good plot and good character development. You can have the most complex, beautiful character study, but readers may not stay engaged if nothing happens to them. It’s how the character reacts to events or to the conflict that comes their way that makes the story, e.g. in the case of Road to Perdition.

Similarly, you can have the most page-turning plot or explosive action or threats to the president, but if there’s no character development, then the readers may not stay engaged. Now I don’t mean you have to know everything about the character, as it is a writing device for the character to remain a mystery or an enigma – but this needs to be a deliberate choice and also needs hard work to be done well. But if no effort is made to work on the characters at all, then no matter how much they are threatened or work to save the day, then the reader might just not care what happens to them.

Despite all writers wanting a good balance of both, most writers to tend to prefer one over the other. For me, I definitely prefer character-driven writing. I’m oversimplifying, but I’d prefer to read a short story of a woman and her daughter having a cup of tea in the kitchen, having a frank talk about their relationship issues, their past and their eventual reconciliation, than a short story full of twists, turns and explosions but where you never really got to know the characters.

How about you? Would you prefer to read something that majored on plot or on characters? Do let me know. In the meantime, it’s back to writing – where hopefully I manage to include both characters and plot!

Till next time,


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