Plot vs. Character

There are two types of authors in the world: Plot-driven, and character-driven.  I’m the type of author who is character-driven, and as such I think that the most important part of a story is its characters.  Plot-driven writers will disagree with this, and in fact I nearly got into a debate over this with an English professor.

However, I’m not here to try and convince you why characters are the more important part of a story than the plot is (and please don’t take this as me saying that plot is unimportant because it is).  No, in this post I’m going to talk about the differences between a story that is plot-driven vs. a story that is character-driven, because it seems to me that a lot of people don’t know the difference, and as a character-driven writer, it seems like a lot of plot-driven writers I’ve met don’t “get” my types of stories.

You may say that since plot-driven writers don’t “get” character-driven stories, the same could be said in reverse, right?  Well, it could be for some people, I’m sure, but for me it’s not.  While I don’t necessarily like writing these extravagant plots all the time in my stories, I have an understanding as to how they work and in fact I’m fairly good at plotting (usually better at it when it’s not even my own story).  I’ve found when I’m brainstorming with a plot-driven writer, I can help them out really well with their story. If I’m brainstorming with a character-driven writer, I can help them out, and they can help me out.  But plot-driven writers can almost never help me with my own stories.

And it finally dawned on my what the quintessential differences between these two types of stories are.  It’s mainly the types of conflict that each story offers.  Plot-driven novels are not without character development (well some of them are), and character-driven novels are not without plots (well in my case some of them are).  The difference is between internal and external conflict.

Plot-driven stories are mostly external, active conflict, while character-driven stories are mostly internal, passive conflict.  That’s not to say there can’t be both types of conflicts in both stories, but usually those are the main types of conflict in those stories.  Another thing we can say is that often-times plot-driven stories have a conflict that is affecting a large group of people, whereas a character-driven story has a conflict that’s affecting a small group of people and often the rest of the world would never even take notice of what’s happening because of that.

I believe this is the reason many plot-driven writers have a problem understanding character-driven stories.  They think on larger scales and are always trying to think up bigger and bigger stakes, but those sorts of stakes aren’t really that prevalent in character-driven stories.  There are large stakes in character stories, but not quite in the same way.  Usually those stakes have to do with a specific character’s emotions.  It’s the difference between having to make a choice to save the world vs. having to make a choice to keep your own emotional stability.

Plot conflict is usually conveyed through actions and large events, whereas character conflict is usually conveyed through discoveries, revelations, and emotional outbursts.  It’s about the world vs. a single person.  So I guess in this case it depends on which one you find more important and investing.  Do you want to see a story about some people trying to save the world, or do you want to see a story about a person just getting through some hard times?

Now, please be aware that I’m generalizing here.  There can be character-driven stories with bigger conflicts, and there can even be plot-driven stories with smaller conflicts, but from my experience, this is what I’ve found to be the most prevalent in these two types of stories.  Maybe that will help some plot-driven writers to understand character-driven stories.  Maybe not.  Either way, I hope my ramblings are at least somewhat informative.


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