Key Points: What is driving the story -- who the characters are or what events are they involved with? What draws the reader in -- how does this end or who is Sally? Both kind create tension in readers, and require conflict. Is the climax a confluence of events or a character decision/change? When the characters' internal moments and the plot's external moments all line up, that's thrilling. Does the plot revolve around a discovery, a decision, or an action? Strong characters make plots interesting. Make your characters strong enough to carry the story.
[Howard] This week's episode of Writing Excuses is brought to you by Audible. They have a special offer for Writing Excuses fans. Go to audible.podcast.com/excuse and have a look. And now, our show.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. Season Three, Episode 20, the difference between character driven and plot driven stories.
[Howard] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry...
[Dan] and we are not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Larry] I'm Larry.
[Brandon] We have a special guest star, Larry Correia. Larry, tell us about your book and who you are.
[Larry] I am an author for Baen Books. My first novel, Monster Hunter International, came out this year. It's doing really well.
[Brandon] Enjoyable book. I've read it.
[Larry] Thanks. I know Howard's partially through it.
[Howard] Three quarters of the way through it. Very anxious to get back to it. But I don't get to do that tonight.
[Brandon] We'll be talking with Larry some more later about areas of his expertise. But we want to do a podcast on... a lot of people talk about this. Character driven stories or plot driven stories. It's a big hullabaloo that people like to discuss in English lit programs. What is the difference? Dan! You went through an English lit program. What is the difference between a character driven story and a plot driven story?
[Dan] You think they discuss that in English lit programs?
[Brandon] They did in mine.
[Dan] Not in mine, apparently. The difference for me is what the focus is, what is driving the story forward. Are the characters doing what they are doing because of who they are or because of what they're involved with? Because of what is happening to them?
[Brandon] So I guess it's... is it Man versus self, man versus man, man versus... it kind of comes down to that. I think I should add a caveat here. A lot of times when people say character driven versus plot driven, they're actually talking about literary fiction versus popular fiction. That's not how we are talking about it, but a lot of people do that. They'll say, you write plot driven fiction. Plot driven fiction to them is anything with a plot.
[Dan] I think that defining them that way hurts the conversation, because then it becomes a discussion of genre rather than a discussion of actual writing.
[Howard] When I think of character driven versus plot driven stuff, I think in terms of process as a writer. How am I forcing the story to unfold and am I forcing it or is it a little more organic? But it's possible that people who are criticizing stories for having plot are looking at what is drawing the reader into the story. Is it the characters that are drawing the reader in, or is it the plot? I want to know how this ends versus I want to know what happens to Sally?
[Brandon] Right. I think that's a great way of encapsulating it. It's very easy to break down to what Dan said, genre discussions. Because you can look at thrillers and say OK, thrillers are going to be plot driven fiction. But I think that does a disservice to the discussion because I think you can drive every story both with plot and with character. Larry? Do you consider your stories plot driven or character driven or both or is there a weight toward one or the other?
[Larry] I think I started out plot driven and my first novel is probably more plot driven. I've done both now though. I have some more coming that I would say are more character driven. Luckily for me, I never took any English classes though. I was an accounting major. I'd say my first novel definitely was... it started as an idea, which turned into a plot. It really was primarily a plot novel. Though as I went along as a writer, it became more of a character thing, but I would characterize it as...
[Howard] As somebody who is reading it, I definitely want to know what happens next. I'm not to the end yet, I want to know how things get resolved. But there are characters that I'm interested in and I want to know how they turn out.
[Larry] You definitely have to have both aspects. I don't think it's an A or B. It's not a mutually exclusive kind of thing here.
[Brandon] Yeah. Although a lot of people want to make it an exclusive sort of thing. I do think, looking at it, we have to really dig out and say what is the main reason people are going to keep turning pages in your book. I think it's important for a reader to consider these things. I don't think... it's less what's going to happen to John or Sally. I think it's... character driven is who are Sally and John going to be at the end of this story.
[Howard] That's a better way to say it.
[Dan] I think my book actually is a pretty good example of this. Because you can look at Serial Killer. It is very character driven. It has a plot in it, but it would be a very different book if that plot took over. If the plot was in the forefront, it would become a thriller, it would move a little further away from where it is now.
[Brandon] I think people who complain, "Oh, I have trouble with endings. I don't know what to do with my endings." I think maybe they are focusing on trying to make a plot driven story when they naturally want to write something character driven. But that's not to say that you can be lazy about it. You can't sit down and say, "Oh, I've got a character driven story so I'm just going to spend time with the characters. You've got to remember you have to create tension in the reader. With a character driven story, you're creating that tension by saying who are they going to be. Is this person going to turn out to be good or bad? Which choices is he going to make? Will he decide to go with the girl that I know he should or will he choose the woman that I know will be bad for him? These sorts of things are character driven conflicts, and there has to be conflict. You were going to say something, Larry?
[Larry] I was just going to say that I think the two kind of are interchangeable in one respect, that your characters... you have where you want them to go. As your characters grow and become more realistic, more vital people, the plot will evolve based on the characters and the characters' actions.
[Dan] I think in a lot of ways you can look at this question by looking at the climaxes of the story. I've been looking at narrative arcs recently and kind of studying it. I was looking at The Matrix. I won't necessarily say that that is character or plot driven, but the climax that comes is very much a character climax at the end of that movie because it hinges very strongly around what Neo decides and what Neo believes. Whereas a different story, that climax would be a plot climax. It would be a confluence of events rather than a character decision or a character change.
[Brandon] I think that one of the reasons I like to write epic fantasy, just armchairing it here, is because it gives me the page length to do a lot of both. You don't always have that luxury. There are a lot of stories I've written that I have to really choose to focus on one or the other. I think this would be a good point to break for an advertisement.
[Brandon] We're trying something new this week. We've picked up audible.com as an advertiser. One of the reasons I wanted to use audible and go with them... they have an interesting program where we can pick as pod casters a book that we want to prom each week. Rather than them giving us a book and saying, "Hey, do an advertisement for this," we can pick one that we've actually read, that we actually like, and can talk about it. Then send you people to maybe download it and listen to it. Audible also has a special program with our podcast where if you go to audible.podcast.com/excuse -- we'll link that in the liner notes -- they have a thing where you can sign up and get a 14 day free trial and get a free book. If you're thinking of joining audible, you can do it through our links this way and support the podcast and you can also get a free book. The book we want to talk about this week is Stephen King's On Writing. If you are an aspiring writer and you haven't read this book, I would highly recommend it. Dan and I have both read it.
[Dan] It's excellent.
[Brandon] It is fantastic. It's a mix between Stephen King talking about his process and his life, but getting into some nuts and bolts of writing, and also just talking about the experience of writing. The cool thing is the audio book is read by Stephen King himself. You don't often get that, the author reading it. He's also a very good public speaker. This is a fantastic book, highly recommended by the Writing Excuses team to help you be a better writer.
[Brandon] That's audible.com, and we appreciate audible sponsoring our podcast.
[Brandon] Let's get back into it, and dig into process on this. Once again, the podcast theme, we always want to try and tell you guys how to do it. Now, if you are a writer and you want to be deciding how to balance plot driven versus character driven stories in your book, how do you approach it? Howard?
[Howard] I draw arcs for the plot and for the characters. I look at... I will actually draw the narrative curve on a piece of paper and write little landmarks on it. I want this character to have a discovery moment -- you know, sort of an internal discovery -- I want them to have some sort of an external triumph. Then I will map these various character arcs onto what I see as the overall plot arc and see if it fits. Sometimes halfway through the story as I'm writing these things, I will make a discovery about the character. I will realize, you know what, this character's internal discovery is different than I thought it was. That's going to change what their external moment needs to be, and that's going to change the overall plot. I will go back and I'll re-shape those curves. But when it hits on all of those, when I get to my climaxes and I realize that the characters are having their external moments and their internal moments, and the plot is unfolding perfectly, that's just thrilling.
[Brandon] Cool. Larry, how do you approach this? How do you balance it?
[Larry] Well, personally, how I do it is... I have a lot of really weird friends that make great characters. But I usually start with an idea, and that idea turns into a plot. What I do as I create the plot is I think who are going to be really interesting people to go through and fulfill this plot? Who are people going to be able to really hate or really root for or just love and be interested? I try to come up with characters that people can relate to. I try to give them traits and mannerisms and things that make them into real people. The more you care about the characters, the more you care about the plot, so I find that the two are really intertwined that way.
[Brandon] OK. Dan, we've talked about how you are focusing on character...
[Dan] That is correct.
[Brandon] How do you keep that balance? How do you keep it from turning just into a thriller? How do you keep the focus on the character?
[Dan] I have a process similar to what Howard was talking about. I don't draw the arcs, but the end result is kind of the same thing. It's kind of what I was talking about before with climaxes. I look at... you take all those various arcs that you've drawn, and your plots and your subplots, and you look at the resolutions of each one. This is what I do. Is the resolution of this going to be about the plot? Is it going to be external, is it going to be internal? Is it going to be a character? That will help me know what I need to be driving toward. In my mind, the way I keep the focus on character, because that was very important for the John Cleaver books, is everything that happens has to be seen through him. It has to be filtered through him, through that lens of his perception, and how it affects him. There's a plot going on, but we only see the parts that really change him and that really affect him.
[Howard] We've talked about that before. Sometimes when you're writing the middle of the book and you're stuck because the middle is boring, it's because you're not looking at the character who's experiencing the most pain or experiencing the most change. I do that a lot. If I'm looking at things and realizing, "Wow. This strip is funny, but it's boring. It's not moving the story forward. What am I doing wrong? Oh, wrong perspective character." I need to switch to somebody else, I need to do something mean to them, and I need to push them along their story as well as moving the overall story forward.
[Larry] That's something... I'm sure that Dan could probably agree with me on this, if you write in the first person, that makes it an especial challenge because everything is going through that same character. If you get to that boring spot, you've got to be really careful on how you're going to wade through that.
[Brandon] That's its own set of problems with this. With me, I do it a lot like Howard did. Though I'm building my plots... I'm looking at it and I'm saying what's going to cause the major revolution in this plot. It's usually one of three things. Either it's a discovery, it's a decision, or it's an action. Meaning somebody achieved something, they learn something, or they decided to kick their personality, who they are, and go in a different direction. The decisions are going to be character moments. For me to build the tension, therefore, I build a plot framework that drives you to wonder where is this character going to go, what's going to happen with them. That becomes a character driven substory for me. Whereas a discovery story is generally... that's actually plot driven because what's going to happen? What are we going to learn? Actions, again, are going to be plot driven as well. Are they going to achieve this great contest or not? A lot of times, what happens for me is I find that I use a decision to launch a new plot arc for a discovery or an action. That's part of that intertwining that you talked about.
[Dan] I think that Larry made a very good point when he was talking about how strong characters will make people more interested in the plot at the same time they are more interested in the characters. It's important to note, like we said in the beginning, that this is not an either or question. You don't have to choose plot or character and then just stick with that, because you need to have both be strong. Strong characters tend to be the way to make that work because when people are invested in those characters, that's when you're going to be triggering all their emotions. A love plot will work if the reader loves your character.
[Howard] Brandon and I had a conversation a couple of months back in which I was concerned that a particular character couldn't carry a story... I didn't think that this character could carry a story. I've given that principle a lot of thought since then. I think that it's a useful technique for any writer, is to look at a character and ask yourself, "How much story can that person carry? Why or why not? If they can't carry the story, what's missing? What is it about them that isn't interesting enough?" Then reach into their life and make them interesting.
[Brandon] I think that's a great note to end on. Larry, we want you to give us a writing prompt. Just off the top of your head. I'm putting you on the spot. This is what happens. A writing prompt for our listeners.
[Larry] Come up with a plot driven story and try to make it good with boring characters.
[Dan] Ignore all the advice we've just given you.
[Howard] We've just made them run laps for no reason.
[Brandon] Someone's already done that. His name is Dan Brown.
[Larry] Oh. Burn. Snap.
[Howard] You can get Dan Brown's stuff on audible.com.
[Brandon] Yes, you can. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.