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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Who's In the Driver's Seat?

Or maybe that should be what's in the driver's seat?

"This novel is plot driven. We're looking for character driven novels."

This was a rejection I received a few years ago. The editor went on to offer some advice that was appreciated. But I still had a problem and his letter offered no enlightenment. I didn't know the difference between plot driven and character driven. Don't all novels need a plot and characters?

It was driving me around the bend, so I took some classes and read some books, and what I finally narrowed it down to is this:

A plot driven novel is on in which the events drive the story and cause the character to make certain decisions. For example in a murder mystery, the event of the murder causes the detective to make decisions to do something. As the events unfold, the character makes more decisions, but throughout the book, the events drive the decisions.

A character driven novel is exactly the opposite. The character's decisions drive the events. Claire Bennett is a character that moves and speaks without forethought, which gets her into all kinds of trouble. The tag line for this manuscript is "With a friend like Claire, you need a gurney, a mop, and a guardian angel." The story is totally character driven and would not be the same with another character as the protagonist.

But do character driven novels have plot? Of course they do, but the plot wouldn't move forward without the character's decisions. Those decisions are what drive or change this type of story. For instance:

If Claire hadn't made the ill-fated decision to take a cooking class, the school wouldn't have burned.

If that story were plot driven then when the school burned, it would have caused Claire to make the decision to never learn to cook.

What about character in a plot driven novel? They have to be just as strong and three-dimensional as in the character driven novel.

It all comes down to what is in the driver's seat: plot or character?


  1. Hi there Ane, just wondering if you were aware there's a famous Claire Bennett on the show "Heroes?" That instantly springs to mind for die-hard fans of the show like me!

    I understand the plot vs. character-driven fiction problem. I tend to be character-driven, but a plot has to get in there somehow, or no-one wants to read it! I have read great murder mysteries in which the main detectives are very thoroughly-thought out characters. Usually the other players are less thought-out. But I loved the way Agatha Christie wove a tight plot, with characters who had relatable quirks and habits.

  2. Ann, nice summary. I agree with your example of mysteries as plot-driven. They (and thus detective stories) are probably the purest forms of the plot-driven genre. Adventure / thrillers would follow as a close second. Huge problem at the beginning of the story that must be solved in order for the individual / community / world to survive. In such stories character development is secondary. Problem is, even in plot-driven stories the main characters must be in control: thus the concept of "who's driving" becomes muddled. Still, this is one of the best explanations I've read on the subject. I suspect women prefer character driven stories (internal angst wrought with heart-wrenching decisions, i.e. Sophie's Choice ) while men enjoy solving problems, puzzles and blowing up stuff. Note: this is a general statement, not a hard rule. Kudos, Ann. Thanks for the insight. My characters are so shallow they have trouble deciding to get out of bed. Good thing the house is on fire.

  3. Exactly, Heather. A novel has to have both plot and good characters, but the difference in some genres is which drives the plot. :) And i didn't' know that about that show. Names are so funny.

  4. Eddie, you always make me laugh. But it's true all books needs strong plot and great characters. It's just a matter of which drives the story. :)

  5. An added thought to Eddie: say in a mystery, a murder occurs but the detective decides to stay in bed. That's one short novel. LOL

  6. I have been curious about this very thing lately after a comment made by an author.
    Do you suppose that plot/character is chosen more by the genre of by the author's style?
    Thanks for clearing this conundrum up for me a little.

  7. Jodi, you're correct - it is more by genre than author style. :) Glad this helped you!

  8. Insightful observation, Ane. I'm told I write character-driven books, which I think is fair. Many times my characters do and say unexpected things that change the plot I had in mind, at least in the short-term.

    It's like I'm in the car with them on the highway, and they see something off to the side and take the next exit. "Wait, that's not where we're going." But I'm in the back seat, and they don't listen to me. So I go where they go. We don't make good time, but see some wonderful sights.

    Eventually, they get back on the highway and we get where we're supposed to. It used to make me a nervous wreck. Now writing book 8, I'm getting used to this.

  9. Dan, that's exactly how I write! I have what I say is a "map" of my plot. Then I let them drive. My stories are character driven so much so, like yours they tend to highjack the plot. But they always know best!! :o)


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