Driving School for Stories

Some people like character-driven plots.  These are plots where the story is made by what the character decides.  Unfortunately for most fantasies, these turning points in the story are usually ones where there is no foreseeable outcome where everyone lives– not exactly desirable for a character.  Take, for instance, the Lord of the Rings, book one, the Fellowship of the Ring.  Yes, he was kicked out of his home by Gandalf and a group of nine Grim Reapers, but that’s only the beginning.  He takes the One Ring from his home in Bag End all the way to the elven city of Imladris, or Rivendell.  There, everything begins to come back to normal as he finds Bilbo again and recovers from a life-threatening injury.

Then he realizes that nothing is over yet.  The Ring still must be destroyed, and no one can decide upon someone to do it.  So he stands up and says, incredibly stupidly, “I will take the Ring.”

He knows exactly what this entails.  Boromir has just given his famous speech: “One does not simply walk into Mordor.  There is an evil there that never sleeps…”  He has seen the powers that chased him from Hobbiton to Rivendell– and he had only had the Ring for a few days.  He had tasted the awesome power of the Ring.  The facts are telling him, “This is a job for elves or men– taller people than you.  Leave it to them; go home and wash your feet.”

But nevertheless he takes the Ring through ice, fire, darkness and light, almost dying every step of the way.  What could have possessed him to make such a stupid decision?

The answer is I don’t have a clue.  I could never force a character to choose that path, because my characters think rationally (to a point) and I can’t stop myself from giving them all the facts.  If one of my characters were sitting there staring at the Ring as everyone fought over it, they wouldn’t stand up– or kneel, if you want to keep the height the same– and claim the responsibility.  They would think to themselves, “I’ll probably die.  My friends will probably die.  Have you seen the size of Strider’s sword?  He could kill us.  That dwarf could cleave my head open before I rode out of the gate.  The elf could have three arrows in me before I could put my hands up.  Gandalf has a stick– not sure what he’d do with it, but I’d do better not to wonder.  Considering Bilbo’s old stories about his travels, I don’t think the road is a place for me.  I saw those hooded guys without faces– they almost killed me for a piece of jewelry.”  My character, continuing this train of thought, would stand up and say, “I’m through with all of this!  I’m going home.  Be good enough to wake me when the orcs come, all right?”

A perfect example of character-driven story is the inciting incident to the Hunger Games: the main character’s sister is chosen to fight with twenty-three others– it’s almost guaranteeing her death.  Instead, the main character stands up in her sister’s place.  The main character made a choice to save her sister, which catapults her into the story.

Some people make their characters have a sense of duty to their task.  Others make their characters incredibly stupid.  Others just live by an outline and don’t care about character motivation (and that’s how you get a plot hole).

Other storytellers, in other stories, make their characters have a sense of duty opposite to that needed to move the story forward.  This means that if you want the story to go the same way, you need to have this moment in the story be driven by something other than character– a plot-driven story.

A plot-driven story is where circumstances conspire against our hero and though he doesn’t want to be here, he is.  This would be the Hunger Games where the main character was chosen right off the bat instead of her sister.  That would be the Lord of the Rings where, in the Council at Rivendell, Elrond says that someone must destroy the Ring and everyone just stares at Frodo.  “He got it this far…”

You can begin your story with either character-driven plot or plot-driven plot.  Either Luke Skywalker immediately makes a conscious decision: “Ben Kenobi has these really cool flashlight swords.  I want him as my teacher for the next few years as I travel throughout space killing Imperials!”  That or Luke’s home is set aflame by said Imperials because of two droids that he bought the day before.  Either Artemis Fowl decides to kidnap a fairy and thus brings down the fairies’ wrath upon his head, or a diminutive magical humanoid with pointy ears jumps into his arms and says, “Yes!  Now we have an excuse to start another interspecies war!”

Whichever way you begin your story, there comes a time when every story turns into the opposite type of story.  No one likes a story where the character is always deciding to do the right thing– it’s unrealistic.  If you begin with a character-driven story, it needs to turn plot-driven at one point; Frodo decides to take the Ring, then through his choice he is forced into taking the Ring all the way.  He still makes big choices sometimes, and those choices may or may not be right– but it isn’t as if he chooses to have his friends die along the way.  “At this point…  Hmmm…  Boromir!  You’re dying tomorrow and I’m scooting off on my own!”

This also goes the other way– if your character is constantly wanting to turn back and give up, it will be a long journey.  In a plot-driven story, there comes a time when the character makes the choice to do the right thing and it becomes a character-driven story.  In a character-driven story, there comes a point where the plot forces the character into doing something he or she doesn’t really want to do.  Katniss chooses to be a candidate in the Hunger Games, and eventually she becomes the spearhead of a rebellion, whether she likes it or not.  Han Solo gives Luke Skywalker a ride for a while and is forced to stick with him even when they’re captured by Imperial soldiers, but then in the last battle of Episode IV, he chooses to do the right thing and help destroy the Death Star.

Whichever way you choose to go at first, make sure it goes the other way later.  And please, if you decide to go for character-driven plot, make sure your character has a motivation to do whatever stupid thing you need him or her to do.

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  1. Voldemort: Why didn’t you just give up and die in book 1, Potter?!
    Harry: Yeah, I don’t know either.

  2. Very good explanation of the difference between these two story types! Nice post!

  3. Very interesting, informative and funny. Just wondering though: if a plot that starts off as character-driven turns plot-driven, and a plot that starts off as plot-driven turns character-driven, then how do you decide which is which? If that makes sense…

    • I think I made a mistake in writing this. I didn’t mean that halfway through the book it abruptly changes, but more like there are parts in a character-driven story that are plot-driven, and vice versa. Whichever style you choose to start out with, that’s generally what people think of the book as, but nothing should be completely one or the other. Does that make sense?

  4. Yes I think so, thanks. This is all new to me, but I think that my novels have been largely plot-driven.

  5. I’m not sure I agree that character-driven necessarily means the character is doing the right thing. It just means the character is driving the story. They could be driving it by doing the wrong thing, or the wrong-but-for-the-right-reasons thing, or et cetera. You just might end up with some plot twists.


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