If you fully flesh out a character before sending them off on their journey or adventure, have you then created a character driven story?
The answer is not necessarily. Not even if you know what’s in their closet or under their bed or in their purse.
That’s because plot driven stories and character driven stories focus on different things. A character driven story focuses on the illumination of a character or some aspect of life, while a plot driven story focuses on telling a story. Even the ways a writer goes about writing the two types of books are different.
Two Goals, Two Approaches
In a plot driven story, each scene moves the story forward. This doesn’t mean that characters in a plot driven novel are cardboard cutouts. It merely means that characterization is woven into the novel’s narrative. On the most basic level, how a character pursues her goal or reacts to a plot development shows who they are. This is inherent to all plot driven fiction. Besides this, authors can also embed snippets of backstory into the narrative or allow us to meet the character’s friends and family. An additional option is to use character driven subplots.
On the other hand, a character driven story is built entirely differently. The author must first decide what they want to say about a character or what aspects of a character’s life they wish to explore. After that, they must devise scenes and sequences to illuminate that aspect of a character’s life. The key is to choose a perspective for your portrayal (have something to say). The sky’s the limit in terms of themes. A character driven novel can be about handling grief or falling in love, betraying a loved one or sacrificing themselves for the greater good.
Right about now, you’re probably thinking: “But wait! Since all plots require active characters, can you really separate the two?”
The Plot Driven-Character Driven Story Combo
Some very confused writers will answer no. They will argue that if a character drives the plot, then the novel is character driven. Here’s a link to an article featured on The Writing Cooperative that suggests just that. The argument here is not about different narrative compositions (as outlined above). The argument is more hierarchical. Character based stories are more literary and therefore better. An added carrot is that publishers prefer books that are character driven.
That said, it’s easy to find examples in which fleshed out characters inhabit a strong plot. The novels of Gillian Flynn are good examples. The question is, how do we categorize novels like Dark Places and Gone Girl.
Ultimately, I’d say they’re mostly character driven fictions.
Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment!