Posted in writing

Character vs. Plot Driven

When it comes to moving your story forward there are usually two driving forces: plot and character. Because each one drives the events in a story a little differently, this gives us plot-driven and character driven stories.

With plot-driven stories, the events drive each other forward. High taxes from the king cause a famine in the kingdom, which leads to bandits stealing from the rich nobles to help feed the poor. Cause and effect directly affect what happens next.  Often, plot-driven stories have a predictable outcome. The murder is solved, the couple gets married, etc.

Plot-driven stories often feature static characters.  Arguably if you replaced any of the characters in The Lord of the Rings you’d have largely the same story. The ring would still be destroyed, Aragorn (or his replacement) would still take the throne. This is because the events happening are more important than the character development.

With character-driven stories, the reactions to each event drive each other forward. The high taxes cause anger which causes riots, which causes a civil war, which leads to the division of the country. In this case, emotions and motivations push events forward. Endings can be a little harder to predict because they’re often focused on internal goals instead of external conflicts.

Because the focus on character-driven stories is heavier, they rely heavily on character arcs and development. In The Hobbit, replacing any of the characters gets a little trickier.  Replacing Bilbo leads to a few less questionable incidents (the trolls, anyone?). Replacing Thorin probably avoids the fight over the Arkenstone.

The main difference between character- and plot-driven stories is where the focus is. A story focused on external conflict lends itself more to a plot-driven structure. The conflict must be resolved in some manner, and as a result, events push forward to that inevitable resolution.  A character-driven story is less about the end goal and more about the changes a character goes through during the course of a story.

If you’re wondering which one is better, the answer is neither. As a writer you may find yourself preferring one style over the other, but neither character- nor plot-driven stands firm as a ‘better’ option. Nor are they mutually exclusive. Going back to The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit you can see that a character-driven story like the Hobbit gives way to a plot-driven story such as the Lord of the Rings.  If Bilbo never steals the ring, then the ring never needs destroying. And, as above, with high taxes and a famine sweeping the land from our plot-driven example, it makes sense for a motivated Robin Hood to start stealing to help his community.

Which storytelling style do you prefer to write?

Posted in character

Using Negative Traits for Arcs

Like real people, characters should have flaws. After all, Nobody is perfect and your characters need to be Somebody. Hence, they need to have flaws and negative traits to help balance out their strengths. Having a negative trait in their character also helps provide conflict and gives you as the writer a place to build their arc.

Take a look at your character’s negative flaws and ask questions. Are they quick-tempered? Stingy? Vain? Perhaps they have low self-esteem or they care too much about what others think. Once you know where their shortcomings are, ask yourself how it impacts their ability to resolve the main conflict. Does an inability to listen to others cause a miscommunication? Does their timidity cause them to keep quiet when they have a perfect solution?

Their flaws should impact them in some way.  Use those negative traits as an obstacle to getting what they want. This forces your character into needing to make a change and gives them a motivation for their character arc.

As the arc progresses, ramp up the problems caused by that negative trait. As the results become worse and worse, your character is forced to try a new tactic to get what they want. This reinforces the idea that their negative trait needs to change.

Not every character arc will end with a complete turn around. Change is hard to do, especially when it’s something like a bad habit or a negative trait. Rather than forcing your character through a full reimagining by the end of the story, let that negative trait remain—but tone it back. Show they can still be just as stubborn, stingy or selfish as they were, but that their instances of doing so are lessened by the impact of their past actions.  

Posted in Exercises

Excercise: The Main Character’s Reasoning

There’s a reason why your Main Character is the Main Character. This might be because they have a particular skill or an emotionally compelling reason to be involved in the main conflict.

As an exercise freewrite for ten minutes on why your Main Character is the main character of this story. Consider what about the conflict is important to them, and why. Also consider how they feel about the conflict. What skills do they have to help them?

As a bonus, do this with your supporting characters about why they aren’t the Main Characters.

Posted in Exercises

Exercise: Support the Characters

Supporting characters fill in a variety of roles. They can be the love interest, the comedic relief, the sidekick and so many others. They don’t just support your protagonist however, they also provide aid for your antagonist.

Figuring out the reasons your supporting characters aid your heroes and villains helps flesh out their character as well as helping give strength to their relationships with each other.

As an exercise: Write a list of your supporting characters. Label or highlight the ones that could support your antagonist. Why could they? Write a scene explaining why they do or do not support him. Do the same thing for any characters that could support your protagonist.

Take a look at your list. Are there any characters that could play for both sides? Write a scene where they decide one way or the other who they’ll follow.

Posted in Exercises

Exercise: Three Rumors

One of the unfortunate truths about people is that wherever there are groups of them, someone is talking about somebody to someone else. Depending on the people involved, this can be either a good thing, or a bad thing, but when you’re developing characters, it can also be a useful thing.

As an exercise: To help in the early stages of building a character, write down three rumors that might be going around about them. One good, one bad and one false. Consider things like where they come from, their trade, their current relationship status. Also keep in mind how prejudice plays a role in creating rumors: someone belonging to a minority group often faces false rumors that can be damaging to their reputation.

If you want to take this a step further, consider how your each of your characters reacts to hearing these rumors, both about them and about the others.