Six impossible things

What drives the story

“What drives your story, plot or characters?”

There are a bunch of problems with this question. First off, what drives the story isn’t an either-or dichotomy; it’s a continuum that runs from the total-action-with-cardboard-characters tale at one end to the nothing-but-character-introspection story at the other end, with the vast majority somewhere in the middle. There is no obvious place where you can draw a line and say “everything on the left is character-driven; everything on the right is plot-driven.”

Furthermore, the wide fuzzy middle area where both character stuff and plot/action stuff is happening has a different “sweet spot” for every genre and reader – some like rat-a-tat action with very little pause for breath, while others want stories where the characters have time to display how difficult the decision was for them to make and/or explain why they chose to do what they did. In other words, even if you did draw a line and declared everything on one side “plot-driven” and everything on the other side “character-driven,” everyone would still argue about whether it was in the right place.

The second problem is that the answer changes depending on whether you are asking a reader, reviewer, or editor, or whether you are asking the author of the story. Even in stories that, to a reader, appear to fall solidly into one camp or the other, the author’s experience of the story may be quite different. That slam-bang action story may look plot-driven because the author deliberately or accidentally left out the angsty decision-making. Those pages of protagonist introspection may be there because the author was avoiding writing the next action bit that they knew had to come next. Either way, what drove the story from the author’s viewpoint may be very different from what the reader sees as driving the story.

A third problem is that the question nearly always conflates “plot” and “action.” From where I sit, a story that revolves around a teenager’s attempt to get into the science fair can have loads of plot, even if there are no car chases or fistfights. People who conflate plot and action, though, would probably call that a character-driven story. This focus on action-as-plot also means that a story whose protagonist is in Special Ops doing hair-raising assignments will likely be classified as “plot-driven” even if the center of the story revolves around that character’s deep desire to impress their parents. The confusion sometimes leads writers who have a perfectly good minimal-action plot to search frantically for a way to get some action in “because there’s no plot,” which inevitably damages the story by muddling up the plot they actually have.

Another factor that well and truly confuses the picture is the complexity of the parts. Theoretically, a story that is driven forward by the main character’s attempt to achieve something of great personal importance ought to be classed as “character driven,” but when the character is driven by a single, straightforward, obvious motive like “survival” or “revenge” and the plot is twisty and complex, the story is usually classed as plot-driven. When the character is complicated and angsty and has lots of hard choices to make, it’s usually classed as character-driven even when the beat of the plot is what keeps everything moving.

All of the above difficulties add up to “plot driven or character driven?” not being a particularly helpful question for most writers to think about when they are in the process of writing something. It’s a distraction, because it doesn’t matter whether the story is plot-driven or character-driven, so long as something is driving the narrative forward. Furthermore, what drives the plot forward doesn’t have to be all one thing or the other. Many of the best stories move forward out of a mixture of events, plot incidents, and character’s internal goals/motivations.

The real question is whether the protagonist is being pushed along from the inside, or from the outside. A character who is determined to solve the main story problem, come hell or high water, will keep trying until the bitter end, no matter what obstacles the author throws at him/her. A character who has a perfectly satisfactory, comfortable life and doesn’t want to be involved in the story problem has to be forced into action by events or other people – when the volcano goes off in your backyard, you have to get moving.

Somewhere in the middle are characters whose job it is to solve a particular kind of problem. It’s no surprise when a police detective or crime reporter investigates a murder, or a medical researcher works on tracing and stopping a disease outbreak. Those protagonists presumably want to do their jobs well, so they’ll keep at the problem. On a deeper level, they may have additional, more personal motives (the officer joined the force to find the person who killed his older sister when he was a teenager; the doctor has a complex need to help people and to be recognized for it), but they don’t have to have any more justification than what their job gives them. These stories can be moved along mostly by the character, mostly by plot events, or by a combination.

Most authors prefer stories where the protagonist has a clear goal in mind that they are driven to achieve. It’s relatively easy to keep a story moving when the main character’s response to an obstacle or challenge is to start trying to defeat it. When your protagonist’s first reaction to every obstacle is “Oh, well, guess we can’t do this after all, I’m going back home to have ice cream,” it gets really difficult to keep things going. The villain practically has to stand behind the protagonist with a cattle prod to get him/her to move anywhere or figure anything out. Frequently, the solution is to present the character with something – an obstacle, an event, a predicament – that makes them so outraged that from then on they will take solving the story problem as their goal. If nothing fits that bill, you end up with a character who has to be pushed around by outside events.

  1. One variant I’ve used is to have an authority figure set the main character to solving the problem, even if it’s not the main character’s normal job. It gets around the plot being stalled by the character who thinks, “Yes I want this problem solved, but the best way to to that is to hand it over to the Experts and let them deal with it.”

    I’ve also had the issue, most recently in my last novel, where the main character would be happy to go after the bad guys – if he knew what the bad guys were up to. But a big part of the plot was to be figuring out what the bad guys were doing. It was tricky, figuring out how to give the main character enough information to get him started on the trail without giving him so much that it short-circuited the plot.

    • Investigation plots are *hard.* There’s a really delicate balance of providing sufficient information for the character to draw reasonably conclusions that are neither too much of a stretch nor leave the reader berating the character for not picking up the obvious. And it all needs to keep moving at a reasonable pace, and you don’t want to get too bogged down in the minutiae of investigation, but also don’t want to telegraph “this is boring legwork/paperwork and I’m skipping it because it’s boring.” And I haven’t even started on false leads . . .

      All of which to say, I’m not sure that I’ve ever written a satisfactory story where an investigation was the driving force of the narrative.

  2. This is a consideration in RPGs too, particularly horror: once the heroes have discovered there’s a nasty monster in the house, why shouldn’t they step away and call the police / national guard / etc.? One of my standard answers there, which I think can also work for writers of linear fiction, is: because the monster will turn the police into Chunky Policeman Kibble, but you have whatever ability is needed to make a fight with it potentially survivable. This could be as simple as being able to see it, when it’s invisible to most people.

    That can be generalised, of course. Why does Humble Accountant have to go chasing corporate spies? Because she’s the one who can spot the records manipulations they’re using. Because the fantasy hero is immune to the villain’s honeyed words (backed up with a generous dose of mind-whammy). Because the scout doesn’t dare write down the information, in case he’s captured, but he has to get it directly to the general.

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