Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Plot-Driven or Character-Driven Novel?

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by C. Patrick Schulze

Listen to a PODCAST of this article.

First of all, we should understand the difference between the a character-driven novel and a plot-driven novel. A character-driven novel is based upon strong characters with a story built around them. In this case, the characters drive the PLOT. A plot-driven NOVEL is based upon a story with CHARACTERS created to fit the storyline. In effect, the plot drives the characters.

Novels that fit into a genre are most often plot-driven. In genre fiction, the major focus is to accomplish some task such as destroy the bad guy and save everybody else. It's of lesser importance who does this. As a rule of thumb, the hero chooses between a rock and a hard place and his decisions move the story forward. As the story develops, so does the hero.

In character-driven novels, the author creates a hero who's thoughts, emotions and other characteristics drive the story. In contrast to the plot-driven novel, as the character develops, so does the plot. Here, the hero doesn't so much choose between the rock and the hard place as create the rock and the hard place by his personality.

One advantage a character-drive novel has is characters carry endless possibilities within them. Plot does not. In fact, Jim Thompson says, “There is only one plot—things are not as they seem.”

A problem with character-driven novels is they often has weak plots. In contrast, a disadvantage to the plot-driven novel is they often lead to bland characters.

So, which type of novel should you write? A great part of that answer is based upon your personality. If you'll pardon my broad brush, I'll say people who write character-driven novels are often the type who focus on feelings, imagination and creativity, right-brainers, if you will. They steer clear of outlines and have a tendency to write from the cuff. In contrast, I believe plot-driven novelists lean toward the more logical, rational thinkers among us and are left-brainers. They'll outline, draw plot points and all the rest. I think it's similar to the difference between logical thinkers and emotional thinkers. Both types work well, they just use different tools.

So, which type of novel is better? Come on now… you've got an opinion. I know you do. The answer, in my opinion, is neither. I think the best novels have both strong characters and strong plots. I believe your success will improve if you have the ability to weave strong characters and a powerful plot together.

Should you write a plot driven novel with thin characters or a character-driven novel with a thin plot? Neither. If you have a strong plot and weak characters, you have a plot-driven novel with poor characterization. The reverse, of course, is also true. Plot and characterization are not mutually exclusive, any more than are dialogue and character emotions. All aspects of your novel must be woven together for best results.

So, what type of writer are you and how does your writing method hamper your writing?

Until we speak again, know I wish for you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the emerging novel, "Born to be Brothers"


  1. I love this entry. I am a character-driven writer and you described me perfectly. Great post! :)

  2. This is another fantastic craft post. It's very important to understand what's driving your story. If it's okay, we'd like to link it on our Friday round-up of awesome blogs this week.

    Thanks so much!

  3. I happen to be a rational, character-driven person, but am definitely a note taker, map drawer, character analyzer, timeline crafter (albeit sans plot, however that works). It's tough to get into plot, and I often worry my plot won't be strong enough (and sometimes don't care cause I like my characters so much...but I know that won't cut it). I consequently have pages and pages of scenes that have no place in my novel, but I wanted to see my characters in those situations, having those conversation to figure out who they are.

  4. You wrote:

    "If you'll pardon my broad brush, I'll say people who write character-driven novels are often the type who focus on feelings, imagination and creativity, right-brainers, if you will."

    I found this so interesting -- so true. And to add another layer -- I write character-driven novels (although I make special efforts, due to this, to keep my plots strong) and I'm also left-handed -- meaning, I mostly operate from my right brain.


    Great post.

  5. C. Patrick SchulzeMay 27, 2010 at 6:56 AM

    Of course you may use my post, Adventures in Children's Publishing. You may do so anytime with proper credit.

    I hope your readers find something they can take home with them.

    Thank you - so much - for the kind words and repost.


  6. C. Patrick SchulzeMay 27, 2010 at 6:59 AM

    Thanks, Christie. You and I are both a character-driven writers. I do have an advantage, however, as my stories are based upon actual events in the American Civil War. So, my basic plot is already outlined for me.

    Thanks for your comment.


  7. C. Patrick SchulzeMay 27, 2010 at 7:03 AM

    So YOU'RE the exception to the rule, Annie. (Actually, there was no rule at all, I guessed as to the personality types...)

    As to those scenes you cut, are you able to use them in other novels?

    Thanks for your comment.


  8. C Patrick SchulzeMay 27, 2010 at 7:09 AM

    A full right-brainer, huh? I'll bet you're a tough act to follow.

    I've got a friend who is writing a novel about a left-handed hero. Her sense of humor really highlights how something so simple can have a profound affect on one's life.

    Thanks for taking your time to comment.


  9. I'm probably the exception to the rule. I'm right-brained and don't outline. Guess what kind of writer I am? Plot-driven. I find character-driven terribly boring to read and keeping wishing for more plot!