Posted on May 11, 2020
There’s confusion about what exactly a character driven novel means, and vice versa, what a plot driven novel means. This post is to help to clear up those misconceptions you might have seen and provide examples of both (and even a third *gasp*) to help you further see the differences. This is important to know! Why? Agents will specifically ask for one of these many times in the myriad of places you can find their requests. So let’s get started!
**I just want to add that having a specific writing style (such as plotting/planning, pantsing, and plantsing) in no way contributes to the type of driven novel you write. If you know all the information, know none of it, get it from your characters through writing, decide it all on the spin of a dime, this in no way impacts the type of novel you’re writing. You can be a plotter and write a character driven novel. You can be a pantser and write a plot driven novel. You can be any kind of writer and write any kind of driven novel. Learn here which type of planning writer you are!
Character driven novels are simply novels that focus on the specific MC(s) of the novel! This means, without the particular MC(s) the novel would be completely different. While character driven novels have, in the past, been tended to be labeled as “literary fiction” that’s far from the truth. It used to be a standard that literary was character driven and genres like mystery or fantasy were plot driven. After all, they’re born and bred to fight off a certain plot element. I don’t find this to be 100% true. I think that good genre fiction is a mix of both, and I really hate to say “mix them both” because it should be said that even plot driven novels should have, if not an actual internal monologue of the main character(s) struggling with interpersonal issues or decisions, then at least some type of outward cues that they’re struggling. Everyone struggles in real life, even if they brave it with a smile. There’s are always cues. No matter how miniscule.
Some things a character driven novel should include:
Plot driven novels are novels that focus more on external issues rather than internal struggles. There is an outward force driving the novel or plot, such as an evil antagonist that needs to be defeated or natural disaster that have changed the course of the characters’ lives. Unlike the character driven novels, while some characters might be important, it’s more about the journey or completing a mission or whatever the over arching goal of the story/series is. Plot driven novels have easily identifiable plot points. A clear inciting incident, clear points where the novel is advancing throughout the story, and generally have at least one twist.
A plot driven novel will have:
Consider these examples:
Let me lead with an example I have and then a published series that I think embodies both and why to help clear up confusion. In a specific series I’m working on, I have a MC who is a dragon shifter. In her futuristic fantasy world, dragon shifters are thought to be extinct. On top of this, she has a type of magic that’s labeled as black magic from the government of her world, and therefore must hide her shifting ability and her magical abilities, trying to pass it off as something else. She does an okay job of this at first when she’s living in a cute, little costal town away from the hustle and bustle of the government’s capital. When she has to move to the capital because her sister (whom she is guardian of) gets offered an internship in a government held position, she gets thrust into a dark world where keeping her secrets is the difference between freedom and imprisonment–most likely leading to death.
If this story were told from someone else’s POV, let’s say the younger 17-year-old sister who knows nothing of her sister’s secrets, magic, or fear of the government, the series would look vastly different! The audience (readers) wouldn’t know of the older sister’s abilities until the younger MC found out herself. She wouldn’t know about her sister’s past, the illegal things she’s done, or the fact that their mother was also a rare dragon shifter.
This series is partly character driven because the story revolves around the main character(s) and their internal conflict! If this book were from the younger sister’s POV, the LI’s POV, or the LI’s mother (who is the series antagonist) every single aspect would basically be different. Yes, the characters would still have the same types of magic, personality traits, and possibly behave the same, but the same events would not occur, in any of these four stories. Each story would be very different. The whole story I’m telling about the woman with illegal magic as a suspected extinct type of shifter, is half what drives the story! It drives her actions and how she responds to all the aforementioned characters, and in turn, that affects how they respond back. Say the book was from the younger sister’s perspective, and she found out her sister’s secret. She might turn her into the government, and the LI’s mother, and the older sibling would die. Or if the story was from the LI’s perspective and he found out, the series would most likely revolve and be driven by his torn internal thoughts and loyalties between telling his mother what the dragon shifter really is and his feelings for her and the fact that she’s basically innocent except for possessing magic she couldn’t help be born with.
While there is an overarching plot of “will she, won’t she” get caught and her eventual betrayal towards her government which sparks the antagonist to hunt her down, the novel equally is about an internal struggle she is having with her illegal magic and the external conflict of being what society considers a “bad” person because of her inherit magic.
If you’re still confused by how a book series could be both, consider this published example. I want to use a series that is typically stored under “plot driven” but I think can embody both, especially towards the end of the series. The Harry Potter books can be considered… *drum roll please!* Both! In a quick explanation, if the book were centered around Hermione, Draco, or Snape, do you see how the series would change? What drives most of the story in all of the Harry Potter book, are that it centers around Harry, a boy who grew up 11 years, thinking he was ordinary, only to find out there was an entire world of magic he was thrust into. There are massive external plot elements to overcome in this series, as well as the over all series external goal of defeating Voldemort. Take this against the backdrop of if Draco were the main character. A pureblood who’d known about Hogwarts, dark magic, muggles, and Voldemort his entire life. While some things might happen the same way, the story would be very different. We wouldn’t know even 3/4ths of Harry’s life that we got from the originals, and we would get to see Draco’s descent into the dark side and get a more internal and personal look at his final choice to take a stance against the Death Eaters at that final battle. The sotry from Draco’s perspective, bluntly put. would probably focus more on his internal struggles between being “evil” and “good” because of family blood and expectations than the mix of internal and external plot points of Harry Potter with Harry as the main character. The Harry Potter books as is are driven, or compelled, by the plot and characters.
HP from Draco’s POV would have been bangin’ let’s not lie. The angst, the emotion, the DRAMA!
**Please note, that many people will say everything from: Harry Potter is both, certain books are plot while others are character driven, or that it’s all character driven. While it could be argued that HP is indeed all plot driven (Voldemort is the over arching series thread which shapes why Harry acts why he does), the examples I gave are still valid. Yes the whole plot centers around stopping Voldemort, but could anyone else have done it? Or was it only The Boy Who Lived? I think that answer is fairly obvious.
What’s the verdict? Honestly, these terms can be very subjective. Specifics differ person to person about what makes each, but in my opinion, with what I like to read and write, unless a story is slated specifically for literary fiction, a novel–fantasy, mystery, romance–should encompass most of these elements bullet pointed in both character and plot driven sections.
I’m not going to post any other articles, mostly because there’s a bit of controversy, but these points I’ve highlighted above that coincide with plot and character driven elements basically can’t be argued. If you see your novel has a good deal of both, congrats! That’s what many want to see and write. If it falls more firmly into one, still fine. At least you know what you’re writing now!