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On Plot-Driven versus Character-Driven Works

When it comes to writing tips, plot seems to be of the utmost concern. Mooderino, Nanowrimo, and Yeah Write! are great sources for such guides, and while they also write about characterization and many other topics in depth, plot is usually portrayed as the foundation of a fictional work. A lot of editing and publishing guides are concerned with the interlockings and workings of plot, too. Many writing prompts are concerned with either plot or setting. Genres such as Sci-Fi, Fantasy, YA, and even Romance are delineated by the nature of the plots (and the setting). Most tips on writing book pitches or synopses involve condensing and rendering plot clearly and concisely.

Plot is everywhere. A tight, engrossing plot is everything. You’re not supposed to overwrite, go purple with your prose, or bury your plot. If you can’t describe you plot in a sentence you fail. These are common-knowledge tips; they’re mantra. I’ve always struggled with them.

Maybe it’s because I’m shitty at writing. Actually, I know that’s part of it. I could write better plots. I could have more action, more tight, engrossing developments. I totally should do that. But even if I do work to craft better-written, better-developed plots, I will always bristle at the suggestion that plot is foundational. 

None of the work I like is plot-driven. Is Pale Fire or Lolita plot-driven? Is Infinite Jest? There may be a ‘plot’ in that book (a plot hatched by wheelchair-bound, train-jumping Quebecois), but that plot doesn’t make up the bulk of the book. The plot isn’t the point of The Corrections— it’s the family, their past experiences, their fraught relationships, and their unending, pointless desires to get away from one another. 

Literally nothing happens of plot substance in Lost in the Funhouse or Wittgenstein’s Mistress, two of the most breathtaking and attention-snaring books I’ve ever read. In one, a boy gets lost at an amusement park and spends the rest of the afternoon (or perhaps the rest of his life— it’s ambiguous) thinking about sex, Greek mythology, storytelling, and his family. In the other, the last woman on earth searches futilely for other survivors, paints, drafts a diary, talks to a cat, and goes slowly insane. In each work, the plot never moves forward, but the work itself is indescribably moving. 

Let’s take a more accessible example— The Great Gatsby. As many people have pointed out, the plot is the worst thing about the whole fucking book. The story moves forward through the most hackneyed and inelegant of machinations— the coincidences are so awful that it’s difficult, even in the midst of Fitzgerald’s lavish prose, to ignore how cheesy they are. Who cares. The prose is lovely by turns, and the characters are compelling. The characters and their motives drive the story. 

And I’m not just talking about written fiction, either. Some of the greatest television isn’t plot-driven, either. Six Feet Under is a family epic about a group of people trapped in a state of limbo, who bitterly tend to the dead and the grieving rather than attend to their own poorly-suppressed desires. To the viewer, the plot is an afterthought much of the time. 

Or Mad Men! Mad Men is about a bunch of striving, morally conflicted, unhappy people who, with every step forward, desperately fling themselves back. The plot of Mad Men has, at this point, circled back on itself and reached utter redundancy about six or seven times. I’m not complaining. I find the whole thing riveting. But it’s because of the characters. 

Name your favorite sitcom or comedy show. I’d bet you anything it’s character-driven. Your favorite piece of literature, ditto. If your favorite drama isn’t character-driven, it’s probably at least fifty-fifty. Breaking Bad has a lot of active, high-stakes convolutions of plot, for example, but the show would be a ghost of itself if Walter, Jesse, and their foes weren’t such captivating, multifaceted, changeable people. The show is about how deeply a person can change. 

Now that I’ve belabored how important this distinction is, it’s time for a clarification of terms:

A plot-driven story hinges on the machinations of the plot. It is often a piece of genre fiction (Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror, Y/A, etc). There are many developments over the course of the story, with changes in setting, time, situation, or all of the above. The story probably, though not necessarily, follows a conventional narrative arc. Power changes hands, information is gained, people die, people are born, people move, progress is made, stakes raise, something is gained or lost. The reader is gripped by the ongoing action and wonders what will happen next.

A character-driven story hinges on the relationships and traits of the characters. It is often literary or high-brow in its aspirations, though it can also be a comedy, a satire, etc. The characters that populate a story have a variety of richly-rendered and conflicting traits— it’s hard to pin any character down as a good or bad person. People have strong motivations, but they may seem stuck or otherwise incapable of changing their lot in life. The entire cast of the story is drawn in detail, with each character feeling like a fully-realized person with a history and a future. The reader is gripped by their affection for the characters, and takes enjoyment just in watching the characters interact and develop, even in just watching these people spin their wheels.

Ideally, a story or other narrative work should have strong characterization and a crisp, entertaining plot as well. The most effective works strike a strong balance between the two, and ascend to greatness because of it. You’ll care more about the stakes of the plot if you genuinely care about the people involved in it. It’s easier for a character to grow and change if something actually happens to them.

 For some reason, Quentin Tarantino comes to mind here—Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained, Jackie Brown, Reservoir Dogs—these are all high-action, plot-fueled movies that are populated with dazzling, multi-dimensional, iconic characters.  Tarantino’s films are the perfect blend of high and low brow, a crack rock of intellectually-stimulating, entertaining cinematic bliss. That’s because he writes compelling characters and lets them roam somewhat freely in the confines of a tight-as-fuck plot.

But make no mistake— character is the true marker of quality. A character-driven story that lacks a plot is a bottle episode. It’s a self-contained piece of psychological art.  But a plot-driven story that lacks strong characters is a just puppet show.