One of the most challenging parts of being a writer is deciding which story to tell.
Whether there are tons of character voices fighting for attention in your head or a single, all-consuming hero whose story you feel compelled to tell right now, there's more than one way to tell that story.
The plot and character decisions you make when you begin mapping out the plot arc will determine how efficient, compelling, and complete your first draft is. If you want to save time and write the right story the first time, you must start with the why.
What role does your hero play in their own story? And why do you choose to tell that story?
The first thing you need to understand about your story is whether it is character driven or plot driven.
So what is character-driven fiction?
Is your hero driving or being driven?
When I talk about "character-driven" fiction, I sometimes get blank stares. What the heck does that even mean? And if there are stories "driven by" the characters, what else can steer the action?
Broadly speaking, action-adventure stories tend toward plot-driven, and personal dramas usually land on the character-driven side of the divide. But just like in real life, there are many shades of story in between the two types.
James Bond and Robert Langdon (from the Dan Brown books) are good examples of fictional heroes who have exciting adventures but don't really become better or worse versions of themselves in their stories. The books are engaging because we get to watch someone who is an expert in a specific niche doing extraordinary things with their skillset. These are clear-cut plot-driven stories.
Cat Crawfield (hero of the Night Huntress books) and Jason Bourne (especially from the movie series) are protagonists who have epic adventures and make conscious decisions throughout their stories to personally evolve (and continue to evolve). These are character-driven stories, but the personal growth within each single story (book/movie) is balanced with the intensity of the plot's action. We only see a significant growth arc for the hero themself when we look at their entire series as a whole.
If you like romantic urban fantasy and want to study a well-plotted, multi-book growth arc for the hero, check out Nazri Noor's Arcane Hearts series. Narrator Zachary Johnson brings the hero character, Jackson Pryde, to brilliant life, with range and energy. (It's also available in ebook and print)
Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon (the movie) and Tom Holland's Spider-Man in Far From Home show significant character maturity within a single film. I also feature two heroes with strong character growth arcs in my Romancing the Grand Gesture workshop (Jake Sully from Avatar and Edward Lewis from Pretty Woman). These are all character-driven stories even though they involve a lot of action and adventure.
Ask yourself if your hero is choosing to maintain their status quo or try out a new perspective.
All of these examples show the heroes making choices. There is always a choice. Sometimes, the hero just isn't interested in pursuing a different path.
Don't get too caught up in the labels
Most of the examples above involve action-heavy plots because I've found those stories are where authors get the most tripped up about defining their niche as plot- or character-driven. If you write stories with small casts of characters, where the protagonist clearly deals with very personal issues, it's much easier to tell if your stories are character driven (they probably are).
Romance, for instance, is a fiction genre where nearly all the stories can be categorized as "character driven". But because science fiction books often feature broad, civilization-level themes of sweeping change, the individual styles of sci-fi stories can go either way (or even strike a delicate balance between the two styles of storytelling). Just some food for thought when you're trying to decide if your own work is character- or plot-driven.
There's no one "right answer" here. And writing plot-driven stories doesn't mean your hero can't make micro-steps of personal growth. The style of your story is usually determined by the genre you choose to write in. In heavily plot-driven genres, your key story moments will just be more externally driven than in a story where the hero totally directs their own destiny.
This article is a sneak peek inside the course that teaches you how to diagnose the most critical problems with your plot by asking 5 simple questions. (What you're reading right now is a shorter version of one of the lessons in the course!)
Questions & comments
So what do you write? Are your stories based in the personal transformation of the hero character? Or does your protagonist act as a vehicle to entertain readers, rather than evoke deep emotions? Both are valid types of storytelling. They just require different styles of plot setup.
I'd love to hear which parts of this article helped you understand the difference and figure out your own storytelling style.
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