Character writing Plotting Story Structure

Plot vs character: What drives a great novel?

Choosing whether your novel will be plot driven or character driven is an important part of writing a novel. Plot vs character isn’t a simple choice, as each emphasis has its own benefits (and disadvantages if it is emphasized far more than the other). Read the pros and cons of each story type, followed by 5 tips on finding a balance and making your story appeal to readers on multiple levels:

Choosing whether your novel will be plot driven or character driven is an important part of writing a novel. Plot vs character isn’t a simple choice, as each emphasis has its own benefits (and disadvantages if it is emphasized far more than the other). Read the pros and cons of each story type, followed by 5 tips on finding a balance and making your story appeal to readers on multiple levels:

The pros of plot driven novels

A plot is more than just story structure. John Yeoman compares the difference between story structure and plot to the difference between a Holiday Inn (basic, simple architecture) to a Gaudi cathedral (a novel design with intricate details, unexpected twists and forms).
Your plot is the sum of your imaginative reversals, digressions, story incidents and developments.

The pros of plot driven novels include:

  • Fostering anticipation and excitement in the reader – ‘eventfulness’ makes your story more compelling
  • Good structure – the reader has the satisfaction of seeing developments coming (and being taken by surprise by unexpected twists or changes)
  • Space for exploring ideas bigger than individual people or their relationships – ideas about society, technology, and more. Plot-driven novels are often ‘novels of ideas’

The pros of character driven novels

Plot vs character - Now Novel's list of the pros and cons of each
Aim for the middle ground: Alluring plot, intriguing characters

Some of the pros of character driven vs plot driven novels:

  • When characters’ lives, deeds and inner emotional worlds are the focus, readers can connect to characters and thus there can be more emotional investment in the novel (as opposed to a drier plot driven story)
  • Character driven stories don’t need many complex turns of plot – working out your story becomes a matter of showing how your character develops or overcomes obstacles.
  • Character driven novels can gain you many faithful readers if you manage to make readers fall in love with your characters

As you can see, works of fiction that emphasize the inner lives of characters and books that focus more on a sense of event and incident both have their strengths. So how do you use both together to make your novel rich and drive your story forward?


5 tips that will help you make plot vs character a less black and white choice

1: Make plot development turn on your characters’ psychology and choices

2: Keep notes on how each turn of your plot will affect your cast of characters’ lives

3: Don’t sacrifice an interesting plot for the sake of relatable characters

4: Don’t let the cleverness of your story idea take over and make your characters one-dimensional

5: Focus on what makes the best sense for your genre

Let’s unpack these 5 tips on choosing a plot driven vs character driven focus for writing a book:

1: Making your characters’ inner worlds and choices direct your plot

This might seem obvious, but your characters should determine what happens in your novel. If you have a character who has severe psychological challenges, avoid giving a happy ending simply for the sake of it. If your character makes self-destructive choices, show that these choices have consequences. Be unflinching in giving your characters’ worst behaviour matching outcomes.

Novice writers often have a plot in mind and simply graft characters into this fixed shape. The hero and heroine are destined to be together, so their blossoming romance skips along smoothly with no challenge and no plot rise and fall. This can grow tiring. In real life, people have histories, baggage, preconceptions, vulnerabilities (or impervious shields). Make sure your plot incorporates these. If your character is running from a disastrous relationship, it’s likely this would filter into a new relationship. To make your characters’ inner worlds work closely with your plot, plan possible outcomes of every action and even ever sentence of dialogue.

Download a practical guide to characterization

2: Keep notes on how plot developments will affect the lives of your characters

Similarly, just as you show causality in how your characters’ choices and personalities affect plot development, make sure that the full ramifications of sudden and gradual turns of events are felt. If your primary character goes through a major loss, show how this affects them (even though the affect could be a steely reserve to not show any vulnerability or grieving).

To make sure that your characters come across as connected to and active in their world, keep notes on how each turn of plot will alter your characters’ lives. Not just their circumstances but their perspectives, values, wants and needs.

3: Don’t weaken your plot just to make your characters loved

Often characters in beginning authors’ books feel too capable, predictable and charmed. Plot vs character should never mean sacrificing the quality of one for the sake of the other. If your character makes bad mistakes and has clear flaws, many readers will relate to their human foibles. Few people enjoy characters who don’t have at least some struggle, no matter how small or trivial-seeming.

At every point where a significant plot event concerning your characters happens, ask yourself whether your characters’ response is fitting with the portrait of them you’ve already created. This will help you keep your character believable and uniquely identifiable.

4: Avoid letting an emphasis on plot make your characters seem like cardboard cutouts

Plot vs character - Now Novel advises avoiding cardboard cutout characters

As Martha Alderson says, authors who tend to write plot driven novels more (rather than character driven ones) ‘approach writing as a linear function and see the story in its parts.’ Yet a partial view of your story can stop you from seeing the broader, connective threads that make up character development.

Alderson suggests strategies for making sure your characters don’t seem like cardboard cutouts. She suggests posting details about your different characters above your writing space so that you can refer back and remember to add the elements that make characters feel alive and real.

Even if you’re working on a clever plot, keeping your characters in focus the whole time will avoid incident overwhelming connection; internal connection between the threads of your story as well connection between your characters and your readers.

5: Let your genre guide you in deciding whether to focus more on plot or character equally or both

Genre is a contributing factor in the plot vs character decision. Some genres, such as romance, focus particularly on characters’ desires and drives. Even though many romance plots are complex and rich (for example the historical epic plot of Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez), these books are generally character driven due to the emotional relationships at their core.

Plot driven novels include mysteries and thrillers. Although a sense of emotional connection to primary characters is important (for example the complicated sleuth or the grieving people left behind after a crime), the sense of incident and event, the domino effect of one thing leading to another, is arguably most important. In each case, paying attention to both character and plot and not making it simply a plot vs character decision will enrich your story.

The Now Novel process for writing a book will help you work out a blueprint for your plot and characters. Start finishing your novel now.

By Bridget McNulty

Bridget McNulty is a published author, content strategist, writer, editor and speaker. She is the co-founder of two non-profits: Sweet Life Diabetes Community, South Africa's largest online diabetes community, and the Diabetes Alliance, a coalition of all the organisations working in diabetes in South Africa. She is also the co-founder of Now Novel: an online novel-writing course where she coaches aspiring writers to start - and finish! - their novels. Bridget believes in the power of storytelling to create meaningful change.

2 replies on “Plot vs character: What drives a great novel?”

Thank you for this! It’s something I’ve always needed to know, but didn’t know it, and I had never stumbled across the idea of hybridizing the two approaches before (though I was trying to do it in my work).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *