On Writing: Character- vs. Plot-Driven


A couple of weeks ago I posted a request for my readers to ask me questions about anything concerning writing. If I haven’t gotten to your question, rest assured, I will.

Agyei Agyapong of Vestpalblog asked: “What has been your greatest challenge as a writer? How did you overcome it ?”

There are many challenges I face as a writer. One, dealing with a  full schedule and just life in general. I address that issue here.

But that’s an issue that’s divorced from the writing process itself. As far as struggling with something directly with writing… I would say character development.

There are two kinds of serious fiction writers. There are plot-driven writers and those who tend to be more character-driven.

I was shocked when I heard recently that some people are prompted to start a book because of a character they made up that sounds interesting.

I could never do that. My book prompts are all “What if” questions, such as, “What if a full-grown family man discovered an imaginary world?” (Don’t bother buying this one yet because I’m revising it for a possible second edition.)

“What if a teenage girl falls in love with a guy …AFTER he dies?”

“What if…” Well, I’ll keep the rest a secret for now.

And so, ironically enough, that’s where other people come in. People who’s minds are character-driven. I need their help to add a little sauce and flavor to my characters’ personalities.

I purposefully surround myself with people who can look at one of my bland characters and figure out what makes them tick, what drives them, what are their weaknesses, and so on.

So, as a writer, figure out if you’re plot-driven or character-driven. That’s easy. The harder part is finding people who can be that other side of your brain and fill in those holes in your book.

Also, I’ve begun reading books on the topic of character development so that I can better train myself and stretch that part of my brain so that I can become more character-driven as I write.

I hope this helps. And if I think of other struggles I face as a writer, I’ll write about them in subsequent posts.

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook to read the email Pixar wrote me! Also, need an editor for your manuscript? Consider me. 

Published by Andrew Toy

Writer when I'm not being a husband or dad. So mostly just a husband and dad.

21 thoughts on “On Writing: Character- vs. Plot-Driven

  1. Although I wrote a disclaimer that my characters are entirely fictional, I have to say I unintentionally find myself basing characters on people I know. My husband read a scene from my novel and laughed at the duvet hogging snorer. He says it’s me. ( obviously it’s him lol.) My main character is a beauty therapist. I tried to give her a job I have a vague understanding of. That way I can have her saying things like ” So, exfoliate and moisture your skin” . I wouldn’t know where to start with her being a mechanic lol. I’ve never really thought about it before, but guess I’m bore character driven. My plot came very loosely from another book I read ( it’s not fan fic , just the basic idea.)

  2. As a series writer, I had the plot for the first book mapped out before I started writing. However, with the subsequent books, I had already established the characters for the starring roles. Now I had to build the plot around the people I had created. As a result, their personalities heavily influenced the stories I wrote for each of them.

  3. Andrew, writing character-driven fiction requires the same Q&A you would apply to plot-driven fiction, but you’re asking the questions of your character instead of the story.

    I’ll give an example from my writing right now (and forgive me for using my own books as examples; not doing this for self promotion at all, I promise.) Last year I wrote a book called _Two for the Heart_, which contains two short stories about love. In the first story, “The Proposal”, we meet a pair of characters who come together because their parents are arranging their marriage. Neither are interested in getting married, for their own reasons, but go through it anyway. The guy in the couple in particular got his heart stomped on. He’s clearly not ready for a relationship. But he agrees to it.

    In working on my newest book, last week I started thinking about the girl who crushed that guy’s heart. I started with a simple question: why did she do it? They were in love. In fact they were all set to get married and the wedding got cancelled two weeks before it was supposed to happen. Why? What would drive a person to such an extreme decision?

    I started answering those questions but then came up with others, some on mechanics, some on plot, definitely some on character. Every question I answered brought new ones, until, lo and behold, I had a brand new story on my hands.

    All of these started with a character who doesn’t even appear in the first story. We just know her first name and what she did.

    I think if you approach your characters with the same curiosity and the same questions you do your plots, you’ll find a wealth of information there.

  4. thewritingedge pretty much said what I was going to say, After you’ve posed the question “what if…?” you follow up with “why?” or “how did (s)he respond to this new situation?” It’s answering those questions that drive you to understand your characters. What if.. moves on from “what if A man/woman” to “what if THIS man/woman (did whatever)?”

  5. Now that you mention it, I guess I’m more character driven. I can very easily imagine a character’s voice, their appeal, their quirks…but I sometimes have no idea what to do to give their story drive. Outlining has helped tremendously with this. My husband is amazing at helping me craft a good plot. The people you surround yourself with is vital

  6. Enjoyed reading your blog. I’m not sure which kind of writer I am because I always start out with a plot in mind, but as the characters become real to me – they take over the story. For example, the Native American herbal expert in “Bridge to Xanadu” was just a minor character to add flavor to the western setting…then he thundered into the story and stole it! He became the hero and the one with whom Texas Miz Mike fell in love. How did it happen…I don’t know!

  7. I’ve been writing a character-driven piece (my first) and I’ve found the exercise challenging myself. I think that one of the biggest things that I keep asking is, “How would this character actually react in this situation?” As opposed to, “How would this further the plot?” The two don’t usually go in the same direction, I’m finding. It’s weird. But thinking about them as people you know very well means you really have to know a lot about them, just like real life. The more you understand a character’s back story and how they’ve coped with problems in the past. The easier it is to write what they would actually do, how they’d really interact with a character… and the most amazing at all… what buttons to push so you can get the best/worst out of them 🙂

  8. My first story, SEVENTH SON, started from the premise “What if a person *like myself* found herself in a Narnia-like situation of suddenly being transported to another world? How would she react?” She’d freak out, that’s how she’d react. I had only the vaguest of ideas of what would actually *happen*, i.e. the plot; the whole thing was based on the character. The plot grew out of that.
    Incidentally, I’m also a character-driven reader – I want to know about the people, their thoughts and feelings, more than about “what happens”. I get bored by action plots if there’s not enough people-stuff in it.

      1. Yes! Right here: https://amovitampress.wordpress.com/my-books/seventh-son/ Thanks for your interest!
        (And Andrew, thank you for letting other authors have conversations about our books on your page. We honestly weren’t trying to hijack your thread to advertise our stuff, just sharing about the character- vs. plot-driven way of writing, and this just sort of happened… I guess this shows that like is drawn to like: character-driven writers tend to gravitate towards each others’ work; ditto with plot-driven.)

  9. I have the extreme fortune of being part of a team of two: I am extremely plot-driven and my girlfriend is extremely character-driven. She writes dialogue almost exclusively and needs help with exposition, while I am paralysed by dialogue and often go to her with my own characters(!) to find out what their motivations would be in any particular scene. We brainstorm each other’s stories together and I think we are both better writers for it.

    It’s always good to hear that others are in the same boat as me 😀 here’s to hoping we’ll understand our own characters someday!

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