Which makes you want to keep reading most: high-stakes, high-concept stories with breakneck plot twists, nightmarish beasties, and all-or-nothing battles—or, transformative fiction about everyday courage, people overcoming impossible odds to create their own happily ever after?
When done well, either one of these writing styles can produce engaging, compelling stories. Let’s explore the difference between character-driven vs. plot-driven writing, how to tell what kind of story you have on your hands, and which one is right for you.
What’s the difference between a plot-driven story and a character-driven story?
A plot-driven story is a narrative in which the action that propels the key events of the book happen externally to the protagonist. A character-driven story is a narrative in which the key events of the book are put into motion because of things happening within the protagonist — such as self-doubt, ambition, or a need for validation or love.
We’ll take a deeper look into each of these approaches to storytelling below.
What is a character-driven story?
A character-driven story is a narrative in which the real action—the struggles, obstacles, victories, setbacks, and triumphs—happen on the inside of your main character. While things may be happening in the plot that help facilitate the story arc, the character-driven story focuses on the character development and dramatic internal change of your protagonist or protagonists.
An example might be someone overcoming addiction, adjusting to new surroundings (such as a new school, job, or experience abroad), or navigating a relationship that faces collapse.
Often when people talk about “literary fiction,” what they really mean is character-driven writing—stories that are less about explosions and oracles and nationwide scandals than they are about people simply learning what it is to be human.
Examples of character-driven stories
Here are some examples of beloved character-driven stories:
The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig
Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery
A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman
October, October, by Katya Balen
The Glorious Guinness Girls, by Emily Hourican
What is a plot-driven story?
A plot-driven story is a narrative in which the story arc is driven by external circumstances and events — things beyond the protagonist’s control. In general, most hard genre fiction — fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and crime thrillers — falls into this category. That’s because these plot-driven narratives are carried along by external changes to the main character’s world.
Romance is a funny genre that often stretches across both of these narrative styles: plot-driven and character-driven. That’s because the story is really about two human beings (or human-adjacent beings, such as aliens, faeries, vampires, etc) coming together and falling in love. But for this to happen, there are often a lot of plot points that move the story forward, such as broken-down cars, stray emails, meet-cringe coffee spills, and so forth.
Some formulaic romance will lean more on plot, while others will lean more into the complexities of character (these are sometimes sidebarred as “women’s fiction”).
Plot-driven novels can still have compelling characters, but they’ll usually give more attention to what’s happening around them than what’s happening inside them.
Examples of plot-driven stories
Here are a few examples of popular plot-driven stories in contemporary fiction:
The Cloisters, by Katy Hays
City of Bones, by Cassandra Clare
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs
Magpie Murders, by Anthony Horowitz
Which is better—character or plot-driven?
So now that we understand the difference between plot-driven vs. character-driven fiction, you may be wondering—which of these is better? Or maybe, which is more marketable? Respectable? Are character-driven writers highbrow snoots with degrees from Iowa? Are plot-focused writers cheap entertainers, or worse—to use Stephen King’s term—hacks?
Don’t worry, writerly friends. There is no wrong answer to which writing style is right for you; what matters is the story you’re telling in this moment. A good story can be plot-driven or character-driven—sometimes both! And that’s completely fine. There is no one narrative style that is better than any other.
As long as you write a story has a strong voice, interesting characters, and a satisfying resolution, you’ll be able to connect with readers. Next we’ll look at how to tell whether you’re writing a character-driven or plot-driven story.
Deciding if you have a character-driven or plot-driven story
Most stories fall into one of these two categories. As a writer, deciding if your work-in-progress is plot-driven or character-driven will help you stay focused on connecting with your reader and telling the best story possible.
Define your conflict
The driving force of all story is conflict. Here’s a quick recap of the different types of conflict you’ll find in a story:
Character vs. character
This is when the protagonist fights another character in the story such as a rival colleague, an evil overlord, or a beastie from the black lagoon.
Character vs. self
This is when the protagonist is fighting against some part of themself, like their pride, envy, impulsivity, addiction, avarice, or fear.
Character vs. society
This is when the protagonist is fighting against a large, impersonal collective such as a business corporation, or a way of life, such as class divides or systematic racism.
Character vs. nature
This is when the protagonist is facing a force of nature such as a tornado, a desert with no water, or a technological uprising.
Once you pinpoint what kind of conflict is fueling your story, it becomes easier to see whether it’s plot-driven or character-driven.
Most of the time, if your conflict is character vs. character or character vs. nature, your story will be plot-driven. This is because something external to the protagonist is swooping in to make life difficult. The main character has to react to this external conflict, triggering the events of the plot.
If your conflict is character vs. self or character vs. society, your story will usually be character-driven. These stories are usually about the main characters looking inwards at their own weaknesses, perceptions, and perspectives, and the way they shape their place in the world. Even though “society” may present an external obstacle, the obstacle often serves as a lens through which the protagonist questions everything they thought they knew. This type of inner conflict is all about exploring what it is to be human.
Many stories feature more than one type of conflict, and that’s okay too. But in general, there will be one clear point of conflict that’s at the forefront of the narrative.
Examine your events
A novel is just a series of things happening one after the other—cause and effect, action and reaction. But who’s instigating these plot points? How is the protagonist reacting to them? Where are the effects being most strongly felt?
If the plot involves a lot of things happening to the main character, it’s probably plot-driven. If the main character is making a lot of choices and putting things into motion, it’s probably character-driven.
Consider, also, the impact of these events and choices. Where are their effects being felt the most? If the events of the plot have a measurable impact on the wider world—whether this is a house, a city, a planet—it’s probably plot-driven. If the events of the plot mostly affect one person or a group of people, making them see things in a way they weren’t able to before, it’s probably character-driven.
Consider your resolution
Lastly, think about the ending of your story. How do your characters develop, change, grow by the end of the book? How has the world changed? What have your characters accomplished?
If your characters are more or less the same as when they started, but the world is completely different, it’s probably a plot-driven story.
If the world looks more or less the same as when you started, but the characters are completely different, it’s probably a character-driven story.
If you don’t know how your story is going to end quite yet, this is a good thing to keep in mind if you want the main focus to be plot or character.
Character-driven stories vs. plot-driven stories: Both matter in writing!
Character-driven writing and plot-driven writing both have the power to engage readers and create compelling narratives. Neither is inherently better than the other—what matters is which is right for the story you’re writing. Now, you can use these tips and ideas to craft rich, engaging character-driven stories and plot-driven stories of your own.