Is your story plot-driven or character-driven?

In the writing world much is said about plots and plotting in general can lead to many a writer’s frustration. There are many theories about plots but perennial favorites are that:

  • There are only two basic plots
  • There are 36 basic plots
  • There are no new plots
  • Every plot possible has already been used/created

No matter where you may stand on the above, knowing the difference between plot driven and character driven stories can only help you strengthen your story.

Plot-driven stories

Plot driven stories are tales in which the story is more important than the individual characters. It is the type of story that Hollywood calls ‘high concept’ and often involves stories that are larger than life like, alien invasions of Earth, a global outbreak of a virulent disease, or some other disaster that will affect the human race on a large scale. Think, Jurassic Park, Outbreak, Meteor, and The Matrix.

Character-driven stories

Conversely, in character driven stories the characters take center stage and drive the plot. In fact, the story is the characters themselves, how they change, what they learn, wisdom gained or not. Hollywood may refer to these stories as ‘small films’ and foreign films are often character oriented and tell the story of the characters. Think Taxi Drive, Silence of the Lambs, and Rocky. In these stories we come to know the characters generally on a deeper level and care more strongly about what happens to them.

Examples of each type

Examples of character-driven stories include:

  • The Quest – the protagonist searches for a person, place or thing and the story usually results in the hero experiencing a large personal change and a gain of personal wisdom about something. Think Stars Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and The Wizard of Oz.
  • The Transformation – the protagonist goes through a process of change and ends with a clarifying incident that enables the character to understand the nature of his experience and how it has affected him. Think My Fair Lady, Ordinary People, On the Waterfront, and It’s a Wonderful Life.

Examples of plot-driven stories include:

  • The Pursuit – this type of story is one character or group of characters chasing another. Generally the story is the chase and there are no large characters arcs or introspection. Think, The Terminator, Sugarland Express, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
  • The Riddle (mystery) – this story is pretty well known by most – something happens we want to know why and whodunit. Clues, are tucked among the story for the reader to discover the answer to the riddle. Think Memento, Rear Window, and The Maltese Falcon.

Of course some stories can be a combination of two or more types within the plot-driven and character-driven categories. If you’re interested in knowing more about character and plot driven stories, I recommend you pick up a copy of 20 Master Plots by Ron Tobias. The book is easy to read, very informative, and will definitely help any writer determine what type of plot will work best for their story.

Copyright 2011

14 thoughts on “Is your story plot-driven or character-driven?

  1. It always makes me laugh to see how many different theories there are to the basic foundations of writing. It’s just further proof that writing is an art and not a science.

    Hi 1-Story and welcome,
    I agree, there are a lot of ideas about the techniques of writing and indeed writing is an art. However, plots do divide into plot driven and character driven in fact. What you do or whether or not you avail yourself of this info for your writing, of course, is up to you.

    Thanks for reading and your comments.

    Writer Chick


  2. Forgive my being off topic, WC, but have you ever visited Kate Shrewsday’s blog? She’s a writer too, mostly newspapers, I think and her work is absolutely a treasure to read because she’s just everyday British. The language comes alive with her vocabulary. She writes delightfully of everyday things and life around London. Fascinating.

    Hey you,
    No, I have never heard of this lady. But thanks for the heads up, I’ll check her out.


  3. Reading this has helped me clarify some things about a piece I’m working on – thanks.
    I think it has aspects of both, which is nerve wracking since I’m not a writer!

    Hi Malachi & welcome,
    I think that most stories have aspects of both – but I think if you look at your story you should be able to see if the plot is driven more by your characters or your plot. I’m glad this helped you and wish you the best with your story.
    Writer Chick


  4. No such thing as character driven really.

    Well you’re certainly entitled to your opinion, but there is no definitive expert who makes such a claim. Your post refers to another post that discusses the archetypal character and mythological story structure. Which in fact, doesn’t really contradict the character driven or plot driven concept. Although in my opinion, the hero’s journey approach (based on Joseph Campbell’s work does focus on characterization extensively. Another good reference for characterization and story is The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri.

    Thanks for dropping by and your comments.

    Writer Chick


  5. I find it interesting that people are right out there with their judgments of you and what you’ve provided…your experience. Thank you for breaking it down and sharing it. It’s all any of us really do, I believe.

    Hi Meredith and welcome,
    LOL, well thanks for defending my honor – but I guess the nature of the Internet is that everybody has an opinion. But you’re right, all you can do is offer your experience and knowledge and hope it helps somebody. At least, that is my approach. Even if it only helps one person, I can be happy about that, you know?

    Thanks for your thoughts, much appreciated.
    Writer Chick


  6. There are also idea-driven and milieu-driven stories, not just character- and event-driven ones.
    Hi Klaus,
    I have to admit I’d never heard of this before, so I did a little research on what these two terms meant. Based on what I found, I would say that an idea-driven story is another way of saying plot-driven – and probably the same could be said for the milieu driven story – although in the latter I suppose it is possible for the location to be so important to the story that it almost becomes a character and then might be considered character-driven. I know that in today’s literary world there are a hundred more sub-genres than there were even twenty years ago but I truly believe that your story is either driven by the situation (plot-driven) or the character (character-driven). In movies there is a term used, ‘high-concept’ (which is a plot driven story) where a situation drives the story – these types of stories often center around a major catastrophe, like a meteor is speeding toward Earth or an earthquake has destroyed a city or aliens have taken over the planet. Another phrase for this I suppose could be idea-driven or event driven. But again, it is still a plot driven story.

    I wrote this post primarily because I had my own questions about it and did the research and the post is the result of that research.

    Perhaps in the long run, the labels aren’t necessary. I personally get a little weary of people trying to parse the process of writing into categories and sub-categories – finding symbolism where there isn’t any or assigning other significance to a story that they have no way of knowing is true or not.

    Ultimately, the only thing that matters is if you have a good story and you have written the best story you are capable of writing. Don’t you think?

    Writer Chick


    1. I know this is old and I’m probably talking to myself but… I think character-driven vs plot-driven is a slightly different, although overlapping concept than the MICE quotient. With character-driven you can argue that the main difference is whether the character is more important than the plot. Take the tv show House, for example. Although the format is a medical mystery, which SHOULD be plot-driven, the show is clearly more focused on House and the how he’s going to solve the medical mystery than the mystery itself. Without House, there probably wouldn’t even be a mystery to solve because his supposed genius is the one running the team in charge of solving the mystery, and it all makes a strong argument that this is actually a character-driven story.

      On the other hand, character-BASED from the MICE quotient is much better defined and require specific things to occur for the story to be character-based. It requires the story to start with an inciting incident that throws the character’s life out of balance, and it requires the story to end when the balance to the character’s life is restored. House doesn’t fit that criteria, because while there is considerable character drama, it doesn’t necessarily include the out-of-balance/return-to-balance dynamics–it might be revealing House’s backstory instead, or some aspect of his character, that doesn’t end with a resolution (it might reveal what happened with his leg, without actually solving the leg issue). According to the MICE quotient, House is clearly idea-based, because each episode starts with a medical mystery (which is an idea–“what if they think it’s lupus when it’s actually some obscure condition”) and ends with solving of the mystery/idea. The character drama is just an icing on the idea-based cake.

      So, a story can be character-driven without being character-based.


      1. Hi Catie,
        Thanks for your comments.

        You’re right, this is an older post and to be honest, I wrote it because I needed to clarify for myself the difference between a character driven story and a plot driven story.

        Today, one might call a character driven story an internal/external genre driven vs external genre driven. In the modern story, an external genre driven story (think the Martian for example) is only about the action and doesn’t delve into any internal aspects of the Main Character, or any character for that matter.

        It’s true that in recent years there has been a lot emphasis placed on character arcs, internal genre and external genre for almost all stories – even those once believed not to be character centric at all. And perhaps that is because readers are demanding more from their stories and their favorite authors.

        The concept of character driven vs plot driven I believe actually originally came from the film industry – and while film is a form of story telling it is quite a different beast from a novel. So in the end, we may be splitting hairs. 😀



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