Stories are either character-driven or plot-driven. If you ask people in the writing and reading communities on Twitter which is the best, you’ll be inundated with responses. This is one of the book/story subjects that people get very passionate about. Some people hate character-driven stories because sometimes they feel like “nothing happens.” Other people hate plot-driven stories because they “didn’t care about any of the characters enough to commit.”
In my opinion, plot-driven stories can be boring if one event follows another event and another event, so on and so forth until a reader is lost in so many happenings that they can’t remember what is going on. With character-driven stories, I feel that people can become bored with learning about a character and start to wonder when something will happen that they care about. Both types of stories can become cumbersome for readers.
Neither way of thinking is wrong, though.
Whether you are writing a story that is driven by the characters or the plot, only one thing matters. You have to make it clear to the reader why they should care. You don’t have to beat the reader over the head with the reason, but it needs to be clear what the stakes are in your story and make it resonate emotionally with your readers.
A plot-driven story about a rag-tag group of misfits saving the world makes it pretty clear to the reader why they should want the characters to achieve their goal. It’s to save all of humanity–so why shouldn’t a reader care? However, you also want to build a world that the reader feels is worth saving. If the world (Earth or somewhere imaginary) you have your characters living in feels like a place that deserves to be destroyed, your plot-driven story won’t resonate with your readers. They won’t be able to commit to the story or cheer the characters on.
A character-driven story about someone coming-of-age in high school can resonate with many readers if you give them a reason to have a strong emotional connection to your character. Make your main character someone they can relate to or someone they feel like they have known in real life. Character-driven stories demand that the writer fully fleshes out their main characters so that readers feel that they know them inside and out. Conversely, you can create a character your reader hates, but you have to make the reader love to hate them.
Many authors opt to write stories that are both plot- and character-driven. You don’t have to commit to one way of thinking. But you do have to commit to making the reader care.
Eliciting an emotional reaction from a reader can be even more difficult than plotting out a story or developing a character.
A writer can plot out dozens of events from Point A to Point Z in a story. They can write up backstories, likes and dislikes, characteristics, and more for their character(s). But without letting those events unfurl in a way that draws the reader in, and without making a character seem like a real person, the reader just can’t commit.
One of my favorite books of all time is THE STAND by Stephen King. This is a perfect example of a book that is both plot and character driven. A plague decimates the world’s population and dozens (if not hundreds) of characters band together on two sides–good and evil–to either save or destroy the world.
Besides the fact that I feel that the book was expertly written, King presented a plot and laid out events that drew the reader into his world and made them root for the survival of one side or the other. Out of all of his dozens (if not hundreds) of characters, none of them felt underdeveloped. I felt as if I knew each character he introduced and found myself loving, liking, disliking, and hating them. I was invested in the survival or death of each character. I was enthralled from the first page to the last.
So…how do you make a reader care about your character? How do you make them care about the plot?
With characters, you have to figure out what makes the character “tick.” What makes them relatable? What can you write about the character that will make a reader feel like they know them? What will make a reader love them or hate them? What about their motivation will ring true to a reader? What makes them different from other characters readers have seen in a million other books? What makes them special?
With plot, what are the stakes? What will happen if this event leads to this event, then to that event…what is there to win or lose? What are you going to deliver in the final act that the reader will be dying to find out about? How can you connect the events you have planned in the way that will have the most impact? Build, build, build, until the reader can barely breathe from the anticipation–make the climax of your novel the great exhale for your reader.
Whether you choose plot- or character-driven stories (or both), there is a lot of work to be done. Your biggest job as an author is to elicit an emotional response from your reader, to make them connect to the story in some way that they won’t forget. If there’s anything worse than a story readers hate, it’s one they just don’t care about.
Tremendous Love & Thanks,