Plot-Driven versus Character-Driven: What's the Difference?
Whether you’re the kind of writer who outlines their whole story before starting or the type who loves the journey of discovery writing, it’s important in the early stages of your novel to know what's driving your story. What will keep you drafting, and make readers fly through the pages—a complex, intriguing character with a thrilling arc of self-discovery, or an entangled web of mysteries in a unique world?
Your book will likely fall under one of two types of stories: plot-driven or character-driven. Knowing which one your book is will help you develop your own style, enable you to tell the story you want to tell, and give you clarity on what you want your audience to experience while reading.
In this post, we’ll lay out the differences between character-driven and plot-driven stories, the benefits of each, and offer insights into successfully writing your book with either method—or some blend of the two!
What makes a novel plot-driven or character-driven?
A character-driven story is one that focuses predominantly on a character’s internal development and transformation rather than the external events of the plot. These stories are less about what happens in the story, and more about how the character develops and learns. As you outline or draft a character-driven story, you’ll find yourself centering on your main character’s thoughts, motivations, relationships, internal struggles, and overall character arcs.
Plot-driven stories, on the other hand, are driven by external events and action. They emphasize the story’s main concept, twists and turns, and worldbuilding over character development. This means that your story is more about what transpires, and what happens to your characters than how they react or change—their role is mainly to respond to the plot and make quick decisions as they dash through all the twists and turns of your book. As you outline or draft a plot-driven story, you’ll find yourself scheming up thrilling story events as opposed to characters’ thoughts and arcs.
It’s important to note that successful novels incorporate elements of both of these story types, but knowing which should take precedence in your own book will help you draft the story you’re envisioning while hitting all your priorities.
How do you know which type of story to write?
To determine which type of story you’re writing, ask yourself the following questions:
- What was the seed that started this story? A character you couldn’t get out of your head? A concept or a plot twist that sparked your imagination?
- Why are you writing this story—because the world intrigues you, or because you want to discover what happens to your characters?
- What style of writing sounds most useful: building a story around your protagonist’s needs, wants, and flaws, or fleshing out the world you see in your head and giving it life?
Lastly, ask yourself what you want your readers to experience or walk away with. Do you want them to deeply relate to and internalize important lessons with your main character, or are you more interested in thrilling your audience with fresh worldbuilding and inventive mysteries? Answering these questions will help you determine your priorities and what motivates you to write. This, in turn, will make it clear whether your story is character-driven or plot-driven.
Key characteristics of plot-driven and character-driven books
Now that you’ve decided what type of story you’re writing, it’s useful to know what writing a character-driven or plot-driven story usually entails, so here are a few key components to help you pump out a successful draft.
If you’ve chosen to write a character-driven novel, some common characteristics you might include in your book would be:
- An active narrator who makes personally important choices, rather than merely letting things happen to them.
- Characters with backstories, internal conflict, a rich inner world, and a strong voice.
- A multilayered plot that is used to develop unique, fleshed-out characters.
- Character choices drive the story arc and the ending.
For example, Madeline Miller's novel Circe is driven by the growth and transformation of the titular character. While the book's Greek Heroic Age setting ensures both a vivid world and plenty of action, Circe's voice and her inner world are what ultimately move the story forward. We keep reading to learn how Circe will change and find herself as she faces monsters, men, and other obstacles throughout the book.
Some other examples of character-driven stories with these characteristics include Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, and The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.
A plot-driven story, on the other hand, will likely include the following:
- A high-concept story centered on a richly developed world, premise, mystery, or twist-filled plot.
- Characters are subjected to twists and turns that are predominantly outside their control.
- Character motivations may stay the same for the whole story, or change in reaction to plot points.
- External events propel the story forward as opposed to character development.
- An action-filled, page-turning adventure that surprises readers with twists and turns.
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown as a great example of a twist-filled, plot-driven book. In this story, the main character, Robert Langdon mainly reacts to dangerous external events while his motivation remains largely the same—to unearth the truth about the Holy Grail.
In fact, it’s not uncommon in plot-driven stories for there to be an entire series where the main character is picked up at the end of one book and plopped, mostly unchanged, into yet another heart-pounding adventure. A few examples include David Baldacci's Amos Decker series, the Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly, and the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park are other examples of plot-driven novels.
Of course, all stories contain some elements of both styles, so don’t feel as if your plot or character development can only incorporate components from one list.
For some guidance on getting your own turning points into great shape, check out our blog post on How to Write a Brilliant Plot Twist.
How do you write one versus the other?
When writing a character-driven story, getting to know your protagonist is crucial to finding and building off of your book’s beating heart. To get started, consider writing out your characters’ backstories, or keeping a character bible where you write down everything you know about your cast. You could even consider doing things like interviewing your characters or building playlists that help you get into their psyche and find their voice. Understanding your characters’ flaws, motivations, wants, needs, and emotional wounds beforehand will help you map out their arcs, character growth, and internal conflict, which are key components that drive every character-driven story. This will also help keep your characters active so that their agency moves the plot along in meaningful ways.
Remember that in a character-driven story, your protagonist’s arc and transformation matter a great deal and should have some bearing on the ending of the book. Knowing your character’s emotional starting place and where they need to end up developmentally will help you map out their growth and build a plot that will challenge and transform them specifically.
If you’re writing a plot-driven story, however, you'll need to focus more on developing the big-picture elements of your book first. Flesh out the world, premise, or external events that drew you to the story in the first place by writing down everything you know into a story bible. In a plot-driven book, it’s useful to outline or map out the plot twists you’re building up to since they’re the driving force of the story and should therefore be executed as effectively as possible. Remember that the selling point of plot-driven books is usually the promise of a fast-paced, action-packed adventure or mystery where characters are mostly just along for the ride—so get that plot as hammered out as possible in advance!
No matter what type of story you’re predominately writing, the most important thing when drafting is figuring out what excites you about your book so you can pump out that first draft. Knowing whether your story is character-driven or plot-driven will allow you to put the closest version of the story in your head onto the page—and there’s no better feeling as a writer than that!