Character-Driven vs. Plot-Driven

Evening, Squiders. I hope it’s not as hot where you are as it is here.

When we were talking about pacing last week, we mentioned that slower pacing tends to emphasize character over plot, and faster pacing tends to emphasize plot over character.

Which brings us to a classic breakdown: the character-driven story vs. the plot-driven story.

What do these terms mean? Well, arguably, every story has both plot and character development. Plot is, of course, the events that happen in a story, and character, in this case, refers to how a character changes over the course of a story.

A simplistic definition is that plot-driven stories are more concerned about what’s happening–that it’s not important for characters to grow or change as much because what’s happening is awesome. Character-driven plots care more about what the characters are going through with less concern about exterior events.

Another definition I’ve seen used is that plot-driven stories are reactive (i.e., things happen to the main character) whereas character-driven stories are proactive (i.e., the main character is doing things).

You will hear these terms thrown around a lot, but in most cases, especially novels, stories are both. I’ve started to see a shift in terminology to external and internal arcs.

An external arc is plot-driven. It’s the events happening around the characters. To use my favorite Star Wars examples, the external arc of the original trilogy is the war with the Empire. A lot of plot points are directly linked to this: Vader’s attack on Leia’s cruiser, the destruction of the Death Star, the Empire’s attack on Hoth, etc.

An internal arc is character-driven. This is the internal dilemma a character faces throughout a story. Luke must go from snotty farmboy to Jedi knight. Han must learn to stop putting himself first and be willing to fight for what he believes in.

Any decent story has both. I’ve actually made a change in how I outline my stories in the last year to outlining separate internal and external arcs, which has proved to be immensely helpful. Without an external plot, it’s hard to draw your readers along a narrative, and without an internal arc, it’s hard for your readers to care about your characters.

(Note that all main characters, if you have more than one, need their own internal arc.)

Don’t get me wrong–stories still can hinge more on action or more on decisions. But, like pacing, most are a mix of plot driven and character driven bits.

What do you think, Squiders? Agree or disagree with me? Have any excellent examples of a story where the internal and external arcs are tied together really spectacularly?

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