What Drives a Story, the Plot or the Characters?

Don’t confuse the process with the product

Spend ten minutes googling for ‘how to write a film’ or ‘how to write a novel’ and you will be told to decide if your story is plot-driven or character-driven. Critics argue about it, novice storytellers fret about it, and genres are defined by this bifurcation of narrative. When pressed, the argument for this approach goes something like this: character-driven stories emphasize the internal conflict of characters and the choices and decisions they make, whereas plot-driven stories emphasize external conflict and the series of events in the story.

There are certainly narratives out there in books and films that would cleanly fall into one of these two categories. And many people are certain this the right way to tell a story. But the best stories, in any medium, don’t fit in one of these categories, and they don’t even try to balance them. The best stories have internal and external conflicts that are aligned and overlap. In these stories the external conflict is a response to internal conflict, which then feeds even more internal conflict. Basically, a great story is both character and plot-driven.

Why do so many artists, critics, and teachers get this wrong?

This myth is widespread, and entrenched in many ways of teaching narrative storytelling. But if great stories defy this distinction, why does the myth of plot or character-driven stories persist? There are two reasons:

  1. It is easy to confuse the process with the product

  2. It’s convenient for those with vested interests in sorting art into (supposedly more marketable or prestigious) genres

The second topic is a whole other beast, so I will save that for another time. But the first reason is critical for xaudiences and artists alike to understand.

Confusing the process with the product

There is a fundamental reason this idea persists: it’s natural for artists to pick either plot or character to start planning a narrative. The initial idea for a story tends to come in the form of a plot or a character. We think about a bank heist story with a particularly tough challenge. Or a bank robber who is doing that one last job before retiring. One usually comes before the other. And this makes sense for the process of building a narrative.

But it becomes a narrative failure when the artist never moves beyond that one dimension, or simply gives the other lip service. A story may start in one of these dimensions, but the great ones don’t stay there. Because the process is not the same as the product. A great story—and let’s not kid ourselves, most of what gets made and published is not actually great—is equally driven by both the conflicts of the plot and the conflicts of the characters. In a well-told story, these conflicts are seamlessly merged into an arc that moves forward because the characters work to resolve their inner turmoil, and the events of the story exert emotional force on the characters that cannot be ignored.

Do not separate plot from character

A strong emotional conflict will force a character into action, even if it’s inaction in the face of other choices. Stories that are marked as character-driven showcase the kinds of emotional conflicts that drive them. La La Land is a good example of this. Each character is driven by an ambition that’s communicated clearly to the audience. And when faced with crucial choices that shape the events of the story (the plot) each character makes choices that the audience can understand—even if they wish for different choices.

Similarly, Ocean’s Eleven highlights plot-driven action (I’m thinking of the 2000s version, although it’s true for the 1960s Rat Pack version as well). There are justifications for the planned casino heist—Danny Ocean’s revenge plot and play for his ex is the supposed main driver—but in reality it’s simply a great heist plot. The inner conflicts and emotional conflicts are laid on top of the heist storyline. The action does not particularly challenge the characters to change or their inner conflicts in a meaningful way.

I love both of these films, and pointing out that each of them place either character or plot first is not an indictment. But, these very good films to show us how this distinction of plot vs. character came to be. Each story is entertaining and works, and each one of them has a clear driver. You can certainly sell a book or a movie with both of these approaches. Which is why the advice is quite common.

No work of art is perfect

I struggle a bit with La La Land as one of my examples above, because it actually comes closer to the ideal narrative—in which plot and character are intertwined—than many films. Closer, but not perfect. Which brings me to my final point. We cannot expect perfection in art, either as the creator or consumer. The ideal standard for narratives that I describe can only be met in theory. The apocryphal quote “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy” is as true in art as it is in war. It’s simply the world we live in. We can aim for the ideal, but also know it cannot be achieved. The goal should never be perfection. But we should also understand what it looks like.

Thanks for reading! If you are in the US, I hope you all have a great holiday weekend.

Brian

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