Friday, November 6, 2009

Plot Driven Vs Character Driven

Interesting discussion over on edittorrent about Plot Driven vs Character Driven stories. I found their take on the "difference" between how the words are used in the literary world versus the romance world was fascinating.

Look at these definitions -

Character-driven: When something about the character's essential self leads to a particular action or event in the story.

Plot-driven: When a character takes a particular action so that the result is a particular plot point.

Honestly, even in an action movie, there is something internal about a character that makes him take whatever actions he takes. The failure, I believe, in edittorrent's way of looking at plot and character, is that it assumes something about the author's intentions, as opposed to the actual work produced. It also assumes that "plot" means there is a fixed endpoint the author is trying to get to, whereas "character" has some open vista of exploration of the characters.

Ummm. That ain't the way I write, or anybody I know.

In fact, if you go to Damon Knight's Creating Short Fiction, it's more a process of narrowing the possible plot based upon "what's the worst thing I can do to this character?" and narrowing the character based upon "who's the worst person this could happen to?" Except that I can't find it in that book.

Aargh. Where is it???!

Perhaps Orson Scott Card's Characters & Viewpoint?

Yes! Page 23.

I only had to check nine books to find it. And in the process I ran across something relevant in Sol Stein's Stein on Writing. He points out the obvious truth that the key to a reader's interest is giving the character a strong need and then thwarting it. The need is the character-driven part, the single need, the thwarting and his attempts to overcome the thwarting are the plot part.

My take: if the need is something external, like stopping a terrorist from blowing up the next bomb, you end up with a plot-driven piece. If events cause other events, willy-nilly, without input from the characters, you have a plot-driven piece. If the need is getting Mom to stop ... doing something annoying ... then you have a character-driven piece. If the events have no real relationship to each other, except that they happen mostly in sequence to the same people, then you have a character-driven piece.

But in either type, you'd better have a lot of the other, or the middle third of your audience will get bored to tears.


Deborah Teramis Christian said...

A lot of ink has been spilled parsing this issue of event versus character driven plots. Except at the most obvious extremes - very internally motivated stories or very event-driven stories - I'm not convinced that the event/character dichotomy is a highly useful one.

In the case of extremes, the writer has to be mindful of the lopsidedness of the story, I think, or risk either being lost in the land of navel-gazing, or emulating a shallow blow-em-up action flick. But in most cases the territory is less starkly defined, and in that middle ground is where these distinctions collapse into something more perplexing than helpful.

In a well-told story, I think, as you mention, that actions evolve out of character motivation, and character motivations are likewise shaped by response to events. A good story has a synergystic balance of these elements, regardless what proportions they may actually come in.

Practically speaking, it might be more useful if we could develop some rules of the road for achieving that gestalt, that flow and balance, between emotional motive and action. I don't care for drawing a line down the middle and saying it must be one or the other. Not when, to my thinking, many (most?) of the best stories contain both.

(I always enjoy your posts here, btw. I haven't dropped by in a while and am glad to see you're still at it. :)


Dal Jeanis said...

Welcome! Thank you for the compliments; I love your site, too. (Glad you're "getting your blog geek on" while you're taking a breather from your writing.)

Yes, exactly. You can't *quite* call it a false dichotomy, because there are big sellers at both ends of the bell curve - Dan Brown and (insert literary diva here). I'll let the visitor fill in his or her favorite example for that - anyone who reads the literary genre has probably found a few examples of these. If not, just try to find a plot in Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea".

But, I do believe that even in genre fiction, the strongest sellers are the ones that have both great characters and great plot. And the best way to demonstrate that in your fiction is to make sure that the plot hits that protagonist where he or she lives, and the character of the protagonist is what determines which way the plot goes.

Of course, events are what demonstrates character. It isn't character to not steal when you don't need what you could steal, and you think you're being watched anyway -- it *is* character not to steal when you could get away with it, you need whatever it is desperately, and you refuse to do it because it *just* *isn't* *what* *you* do.

So, put your character on the horns of a dilemma and see what they do. Make sure that all of their options are bad ones, or at least lead to more dilemmas. Occasionally give them what looks like an easy way out, and laugh maniacally if they take it...

Your characters won't love you for it, but your readers will.