Character-based Stories

A lot of people have heard me toss around the words “plot-based” and “character-based” as if they were widely-accepted terms of literary criticism. Which they are not. But, I think many fellow readers and authors understand what I mean. Even so, an explanation—in the form of this post—has been long in coming.

Here’s what I mean:

Back in elementary school, you learned that every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Later, you might have gotten a modified picture of “introduction, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution”, possibly with an actual “plot diagram” as seen here.1 In high school or college you might have learned some Greek terms for the same thing. But the point is, all of them are ways to talk about a story’s plot.

Here’s the thing, though: focusing on plot is a bad way to write a story.

“Okay, smart alec. Stories without plots suck. You know that. So how am I supposed to write a story, if not with plot?”

By putting characters in a situation, and seeing what happens. A good story starts with a situation and characters, and then everything that happens from there is just the natural consequences of the characters interacting with each other and with the environment. Sure, there can be outside events, but those should feel more like part of the situation rather than part of the plot.

This is what I mean by “character-based”, although “character-driven” might be a better term. A plot-driven story, by contrast, pulls the characters along from plot point to plot point, up the rising action to the climax and then tidily lined up for the resolution. Character-driven stories tend to feel more real, more True, than plot-driven stories, because everything that happens comes out of the characters acting like people.

When you’re doing it right, scenes will write themselves almost literally. And I mean it: you can have an idea of what’s going to happen by the time character A leaves the room, but character A might have a different idea! My most memorable example of this came during my first NaNoWriMo: the main character was eating breakfast with his roommate when his roommate’s girlfriend sat down at the table. Until that sentence came to my mind, I had no idea the roommate had a girlfriend. But that was very obviously what happened next. When you get those flow-state moments, it’s almost like writing down events in a story you already know, rather than creating something new. But in a good way.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. When I was in middle school, author Ben Mikaelsen gave a talk in which he told a story about writing Touching Spirit Bear. In it, there’s a scene where the main character’s motorcycle skids off the road out of control—and it was totally unplanned. He said that he tried a couple times to restart and do the “right” thing—that is, what the plot ideas in his head required. But his subconscious knew better, and wouldn’t let him do it, so he decided to have fun with it. (“Okay, so he spun out and skidded along the ground, no, he spun out and landed in the dirt, he flew into the air and crashed into a tree“…et cetera.)

And I’m not the only one who makes this distinction about plot-based vs. character-based stories, either. Stephen King—a writer of genre fiction rather than high-fallutin’ “literary” fiction—has a good book called On Writing, which, ironically, is the only Stephen King book I’ve read.

In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech.

You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer—my answer, anyway—is nowhere. […]

To get even most of [a story “fossil”], the shovel must give way to more delicate tools… Plot is a far bigger tool, the writer’s jackhammer. You can liberate a fossil from hard ground with a jackhammer, no argument there, but you know as well as I do that the jackhammer is going to break almost as much stuff as it liberates. It’s clumsy, mechanical, anticreative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.

Yes, yes, yes. This is very much how I feel about plot-based stories. And yes, sometimes they’re fun…but almost no plot-based story is ever art, and few of them have the power to make you think. Character-driven stories make you care a lot more, partly because of the naturally-increased focus on the characters, but mainly because they’re more believable. They maintain the fourth-wall illusion much better…which is impressive because they’re books.

Does this mean all plot-driven books are bad and character-driven books are automatically good? Of course not. A book that has no plot is usually just as bad as you ever thought it was.2 Character studies, a sort of “high” form of “character-driven with no plot”, are often artsy but not actually so good. If anything, I need to shore up my narration and work much harder on description, since I have dialogue down pretty well.

But to sum it all up, when I say a story is “plot-based”, that means the story is being dragged from plot point to plot point. When I say “character-based”, that means I felt like the story was unfolding because of what the characters did, and that it had a certain feel of authenticity. A New Hope is more plot-based, The Empire Strikes Back is comparatively more character-based (but still not as much as Super 8).

Now go forth and start using these terms, and soon they will be widely-accepted terms of literary criticism. And now that you think this way, you might just become a better writer, too.

P.S. In addition to On Writing, No Plot? No Problem! is another great book about writing, aimed at first-time NaNoWriMo participants (and written by its founder, Chris Baty).

  1. By no means am I recommending this page; just below “plot diagram” is “irony”, and about half of their examples are not actually ironic. Pages like this are why “English classes suck”…but that’s a topic for another post. ↩︎

  2. My first NaNoWriMo book was one of these. I had a plot in mind but never got around to it, and so it ended up just being 50,000 words of character angst. ↩︎