Knowing how to approach your plot will help you work out many things in the rest of your work, from what to research, to chapter length and even the impact of your ending.
Most stories can be classified as plot-driven or character-driven (and sometimes a mash-up of the two). But what do these terms really mean? A lot of websites provide conflicting definitions and examples, but here’s what it boils down to:
It’s helpful to think about plot-driven stories as a complete journey where there is a clear end goal which has already been decided. The characters are there to help move the plot from A to B and if you replaced them with other people, the plot basically stays the same.
Plot-driven stories are commonly found in what’s known as ‘commercial fiction’ such as mystery, crime, romance, and fantasy genres, where we know that at the end the murder will be solved, the guy will get the girl, or the prince will inherit his kingdom.
On Indie Tips, Lewis McGregor says that in Lord of the Rings
Even if you remove Frodo, who is more or less the main protagonist and replace him with another Hobbit, the event, which is the battle for middle earth still takes place, the call to action still exists…”
This is a more internal story, where we spend time reflecting with the characters and discover who they are as people. The nature of the characters and the decisions they make shape the plot and the final outcome of the story.
Character-driven plots are usually considered ‘literary fiction’ because their structures (especially their endings) are unpredictable and their characters are more in-depth. These books can seem more contemporary than plot-driven novels because they’re not following a tried-and-tested traditional story structure.
For example, Liesel Meminger in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, is a round character that is perfectly capable of making her own decisions and choosing her own path in the book’s plot. Her thoughts and actions are her own, and if you replaced her with another girl there may not have been so many stolen books or well-kept secrets.
Which are you?
Sometimes these dichotomies are not so clear. Many books stick to one or the other, but many also merge the two kinds of plot.
Here is a test that will help you to determine how emotionally developed your characters are, and whether you prefer to write action or character driven stories.
There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to choosing your kind of plot. Different stories require different methods of telling, and whichever style best suits your concept is the one that you should use.