What is the difference between character-driven stories and plot-driven stories?

user27894 11/21/2017. 7 answers, 4.288 views
plot planning terminology

I have googled this question several times but I'm just not clear on the answers I'm getting. For example, I know that screenplays/plays/books such as A Streetcar Named Desire, Enough Said, The Spare Room and Little Miss Sunshine are character driven - I know because of the feel of them. But there is still a plot there that unfolds.

7 Answers

Amadeus 11/21/2017.

Character driven is typically about life changes (or life ending) for a character, basically the character(s) undergo some kind of deep emotional transformation that is life-changing. Becoming a sexualized adult, breaking out of an abusive relationship, losing a child or parent. However, in the process of this, the world and society and people are not really changing.

Huckleberry Finn runs away and travels down the Mississippi with a runaway slave, Jim. Do you remember their adventures? Probably not, what you are most likely to remember is that Huck was transformed by this experience, came to see Jim as a person and a friend, and in the end put friendship over money and sacrificed to free him.

Plot driven is more like 007 or Mission Impossible. James Bond's adventures in such a story do not change him, we expect him to be pretty much exactly the same hero in every film. We go to see the acrobatics and special effects and suspense of the plot resolution. If Bond loses friends or lovers in the course of the story, by the end he is still the Bond we started with, and other than a few technicalities (recurring characters that 'died' due to actor retirement or whatever) we could watch the Bond films in any order. In fact the notion that Bond does not change applies even to his age! Which is why so many men have to play Bond, he is not allowed to grow old. As long as he has the Bond 'look' who plays him does not matter.

Another way to see Plot Driven is through TV series. The general idea for any long running series is that the characters do not really change much at all. In MASH, Hawkeye Pierce was Hawkeye throughout. Sure, he had lots of emotional moments, he cried, etc, but by the next episode he was the same guy that started the previous episode (caveat for multi-part shows of course).

Modern TV series are changing (for the better IMO) with character arcs spanning multiple seasons, and a handful in history have allowed deep character changes throughout. But for the most part, especially in comedy, little or nothing 'learned' by the characters in one episode apply to the next episode. Homer Simpson, Lisa, Bart and Marge are always the same. Sometimes it is unavoidable (live child actors grow up; e.g. in Two And A Half Men). In other cases, the original 'situation' in a situation comedy (e.g. The Big Bang Theory) or situation drama (e.g. The Mentalist) runs out of steam and the writers must take the risk of evolving to some new situation and hope the viewers follow them (in TBBT it is that the nerds start getting married, that seems to be working. In The Mentalist, Patrick Jane finally captures and kills Red John, but the show faltered when the writers tried to evolve to a new situation).

It is not impossible to mix these, and many stories do, but it can be tricky to start firmly in one mode, and then try to switch to the other. For example, The Mentalist might have been saved if it WERE more character driven, and Patrick had evolved, along with his love interest, and dealt with Red John in season 4 or so. The writers could have changed Patrick's personality enough to make him a more generally dedicated law enforcer and introduced additional long-running villains besides Red John, so he was not completely driven by just this ONE serial killer (that killed his wife and child). He could have 'grown up' and developed empathy and sympathy, so instead of just seeking personal revenge he transitioned into a hero seeking justice in his way. As it was, because his core motivations remained selfish and self-serving throughout, once Red John was gone so was the driving raison d'etre of Patrick Jane. Of course even character driven series must come to an end eventually, but in this case IMO the writer's trapped themselves and could have had three or four more seasons than they got.

Arcanist Lupus 11/21/2017.

Plot-driven vs character-driven is a spectrum rather than a dichotomy. But generally speaking, character-driven means that the plot is primarily guided by characters reacting to other characters, while plot-driven (or event-driven might be a better term) means that the plot is primarily guided by character reactions to external events.

Mike.C.Ford 11/21/2017.

In the context of experiencing a story, character-driven and plot-driven mean very little. It is only during the writing process that these terms have any importance.

In a character-driven story, as the name suggests, the characters literally drive the story. The central character or characters have the autonomy to decide how their story progresses, and decide what to do next at each moment.

In a plot-driven story, the characters tend to be more railroaded, and the writer decides that the characters must do certain things in order to allow certain events to happen, so external things must happen to the characters in order to make them act in a certain way or cause them to make the decisions necessary to drive the plot forward.

However, no story can be entirely one or the other. If a story is entirely character-driven, then you're just telling the story of someone's life, and there might be no obviously climactic moment at which to have any sort of resolution. On the other hand, if you create a story where the characters must adhere to every plot point you deem necessary, then their entire personalities become irrelevant.

So when writing your story, you must consider either:

  • What would this character do next?

  • What can I make happen to this character to make them do what I want?

There will always be elements of both of these in any story, but if you're trying to write something character-driven, you'll answer the first question more often, and plot-driven stories will mostly follow the answers to the second.

John Fro 11/21/2017.

There needs to be a testable theory that can predict if a story is C or P based in advance. Technically, a plot based story follows a story arc whereby the point of the story does not resolve itself via character dynamics, but rather by impersonal forces. However, the dichotomy is more important for writers than it is for readers. For the writer the question would be "what would these characters do next?" for a C story and "How do I get from A to B to Z" for a plot based story. The Da Vinci Code is a classic example of trying to move a story mechanically, while The Bridges of Madison County works as character drama only--or try On Golden Pond. Hardly anything "happens" for example.

FraEnrico 11/23/2017.

I have just found the notes from my teacher that help to summarize the question like this.

A story always comes from a conflict or a problem. That said:

  • Character driven: the problem rise from the character, from their own life and personality. Ex.: Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, Hamlet.
  • Plot driven: the problem comes from outside the character, generally an antagonist, and the protagonist has to deal with it. Once the antagonist is gone, the story ends. Ex.: The Hobbit, Beowulf.
  • Arena driven: the problem is in the world, or the environment, and the people who live in it have to face it. Hypothetically, characters can die and be replaced, and the story will continue. Ex.: E.R., Blood meridian.

Of course these are abstract theories, rough categorizations used by critics and producers, but a work can have more nuances. For what I know, they are mostly used in TV, rather than in literature.

A.T. Catmus 01/22/2018.

I tend to agree with this lady: Lisa Cron. She says this about your question:

There are no stories that are plot-driven. Every story is character-driven. Some stories are more plot-heavy and more things happen…but by definition, the plot is just a bunch of things that happen.

You can read her full article by clicking her name. To me, at least, stories feature a character that is seeking something, which becomes the plot of the story. Other events may be creating the plot, but in the end, if the character doesn't go with the flow of the story, there's no story.

But as I said, this is just what I think. A 100 men won't give you the same answer, so try to find what suits you best.

Joseph Pedulla 01/20/2018.

Lisa Cron seems to contradict herself. She says, "There are no stories that are plot-driven. Every story is character-driven. Some stories are more plot-heavy and more things happen…but by definition, the plot is just a bunch of things that happen." If a plot is "just a bunch of things that happen," the character, then, by her own definition, would have to be passive, would have to be "acted upon." A character who drives his own story is not "acted upon." He is one WHO ACTS.

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