When you break creative writing down to its most basic form, there are two kinds of story: plot driven and character driven. They both provide the framework to tell unique and compelling stories, and I wouldn’t say plot driven stories are inferior, but character driven stories do offer the reader a chance to connect personally with the story being told. First of all though, what’s the difference?

A plot driven story is one where circumstance and events are driving the story forward, like a rollercoaster, the characters are simply along for the ride. Good examples of plot driven stories are James Bond movies or the TV series 24. Whether its James Bond riding off into the sunset with another gorgeous blonde or Jack Bauer faking his own death (again), these characters leave the story more or less unchanged by the events that occurred during the story. When Jack Bauer is having to diffuse another terrorist bomb, he’s simply a victim of circumstance, nothing he does or doesn’t do really has any impact on how the plot flows. That’s why 24 is a series of tiny catastrophes strung together, even when Jack Bauer has diffused the bomb and killed the terrorist, the plot will pull out another event out to keep the story moving. Events are pushing the story forward and the characters simply follow those events, reacting as necessary.

On the other side of the coin, Character driven stories have the character’s actions drive the story forward. If you’ll remember back in my Mass Effect 3 post, I mentioned the inciting incident which starts the hero out on his journey. In a character driven plot, the inciting incident is the only event that the characters don’t directly influence. After that the story moves forward as a direct result of the actions of the characters. In Lord of the Rings, it’s Frodo saying “I will take the Ring to Mordor” that allows the story to continue on from Rivendel. The character was confronted with a situation and made a choice that was appropriate to the character’s personality.

Even if that character was a bit of whinging pain in the ass.

If Lord of the Rings were a plot driven story, Orcs would have attacked Rivendel and forced Frodo to flee with the Ring, depriving him of the choice. If James Bond were character driven, it would be James’s actions that would propel the story forward. For instance in Golden Eye, James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is asked to surrender or have his partner (Sean Bean) die before his eyes. If this scene were driven by the characters, then James would either come out or, more likely, stay hidden and allow his partner to die. Instead we get what usually happens in plot driven stories: James Bond is just about to reveal himself but Sean Bean is killed before he can. The plot shot Sean Bean in the head and deprived James Bond’s character from making a choice himself.

This isn’t unusual in stories like James Bond, where the hero is larger than life. After all, showing James Bond to be a calloused undercover agent by allowing Sean Bean to die would shatter most people’s perceptions of the heroic James Bond. The writers needed an easy way to make James Bond look heroic but still end up with a plausible way for him to escape.

What devilishly handsome spies…

I know a lot of writers and critics despise plot driven stories, but there’s a lot to be said for a plot driven narrative. I think a character driven 24 would actually have some pretty interesting stories to tell, but it simply wouldn’t allow for the same heart-pounding adrenaline rush that the plot driven episodes of 24 allow for. If you want to get really old school, take Armageddon and Deep Impact. Armageddon is fun, plot driven action flick featuring Steve Bucemi trying to ride a giant asteroid into the ocean. Deep Impact is a somber character driven story featuring characters trying to cope with the idea of the world ending.

They both have merit, and which one people enjoy is entirely based on their tastes. In fact, most people can actually enjoy both types of story. Personally I enjoyed both James Bond and Lord of the Rings. I liked both Armageddon and Deep Impact. You’ll also probably notice that in all of my above examples, both characters and plot are integral to the stories. One might be driving the story, but it can’t survive without the other.

Without the overarching plot of Lord of the Rings, would anyone really care what happens to Frodo? No, because without the plot of Sauron taking over the world, Frodo’s journey alone has no meaning. Would a James Bond movie be worth watching without the titular James Bond and all the other supporting characters? Would Armageddon be worth watching if it didn’t feature Steve Buscemi?

The answer to all of the above is No. Especially the last one.

Yes, a story is either driven by its characters or its plot, but both are always necessary to make the story work. The front wheel of a motorcycle might be the only one that turns, but the motorcycle isn’t going anywhere without the rear wheel. If you try to make a character driven story but ignore the plot, you end up with Battlestar Galactica. Try to make a plot driven story without characters and you end up with Far Cry 2.

In the coming weeks I’ll be dissecting two well known stories, one character driven and one plot driven, to better illustrate the differences but I thought this would be a good overview. See you all on wednesday, and please, if you have anymore requests for topics, feel free to write in!

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Written by John Stevenson

I'm a freelance writer based out of Seattle, Washington.

8 comments

  1. Anything that mentions the awesomeness of James Bond is, of course, required reading. In fact, if you’d be so kind, many future posts about the world’s greatest spy, his exploits, and your views and subjects about Bond would be a wonderful addition to my reading lists.

    1. Sure, doing some James Bond would be fun. Any particular requests? There’s been a whole ton of movies, though I’m definitely going to do at least one with Sean Connery in it.

      And while I’ve never actually read the books but they might be interesting to go over.

  2. Looking forward to the next posts. I’m trying to learn a bit more about storytelling and you explain this easily enough for me to absorb it.

    1. Glad to hear it! Please, if you have any specific questions on writing don’t hesitate to ask. The more in-depth Character vs Plot driven story posts will probably be next week, since it takes quite a bit of time to watch/read, break down the stories, and then write about them.

  3. Enjoyable read.
    I suppose if a story needs both good plot and charactors its easy to forget which is the main driving force behind a story and end with charactors doing stupid or strange beheavior and choices just move a story forward.

    1. Yeah, its absolutely critical that a characters actions make sense for him/her. Like I pointed out in the Mass Effect 3 ending, Shepard really breaks character in the final moments of the game. When a character does something strange and completely out of the ordinary for his character, your audience will always notice.

  4. Thanks for the clarification! Would it be accurate to say that (in good stories) there is more of a reciprocal relationship between character and plot (i.e. they share the steering wheel, so to speak) and that the differences between stories is more a matter of emphasis as to which one drives longer?

    1. That’s a fair assessment. A more accurate analogy might be one of them is driving while the other is giving directions to where they want to go. Usually the character is driving with the plot providing directions as you go through the story :).

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