As a reader, do you prefer the characters steer the story, or are you an action fiend, hungry for the plot? Do you really want to get to know the people in the story, do you want to root for them and feel their pain and their excitement, or do you just want the action—conflict, problem, conflict, problem?
As a writer, you should take a cue from your preferences as a reader. If you prefer to read plot-driven stories, then you may not want to sit down and try to write a family saga that is generations deep. And likewise, if you really love those books that dive into their characters’ lives, into every nook and cranny of their thoughts and feelings, you may not want to pick up your pen (or sit down at your keyboard) and try to crank out the next action-packed thriller.
Why this advice? Because we do learn to write—at least in part—by reading. We get familiar with styles and formulas and narrative flows, and character-driven stories flow differently than plot-driven stories do. There is an advantage to writing what you know. It feels … not effortless, of course … but it feels comfortable when you’re writing in your wheelhouse.
Now, with that said, it is absolutely possible to write a plot-driven story with well-constructed, deeply imagined characters. Think John Sandford, Nelson DeMille, Lee Child. (They’re some of my faves, which is why I mentioned them.) All of them write tight, suspenseful thrillers, but they have each created a cast of characters (often multiple casts) that populate their series and grow with each book.
Lucas Davenport (Sandford’s MC in the Prey series) has grown so much since his inception. Does he still resemble his old self? Of course he does, just like there are elements in each of us that remain unchanged through the years. But are you the same person you were twenty years ago? I’d bet not, and neither is Lucas. Yet none of that great character development affects how fast I want to turn the pages to find out what’s going to happen next.
My point is this:
- You can choose to write a character-driven novel that is more about the people in your story, how they behave, why they behave the way they do, and the consequences of that behavior.
- You can choose to write a plot-driven story that focuses much more on getting on from Point A to Point B to Z, all the way at the end, where the characters are merely transports for the action.
- Or you can choose to combine the two styles and write an action-packed story about people your readers will care about.
Experiment. Try one then the other. Try combining them. Have fun.
And write, write, write.
Do you have questions about character-driven vs. plot-driven stories? Please leave them as a comment below or reach out to me personally by sending me an email at email@example.com and ask away!
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I’m looking forward to hearing from you!