Character-Driven Stories

They say that stories can be divided into two broad categories: plot-driven and character-driven. Essentially, it’s based on what moves your story forward—car chases and clues and fights, or conversations and decisions and relationships? Now, obviously, this is a broad generalization with a myriad of nuances and exceptions, but there is something there to be explored.

Most literary fiction is character-driven—stories of friendships, families, inner journeys, etc. The only overtly commercial character-driven fiction I can think of off the top of my head are romances, which even at their cheesiest, are based on the choices and emotions of the characters (some have plot-based subplots, and so move a bit away from this).

Occasionally, you’ll have a genre work that’s character-driven, usually with a literary tone. Like The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, a dystopian by way of character exploration. Or the movie Her, a calm sci-fi centered on the life of a single man (and his A.I. lover).

But, overall, most fantasy and sci-fi works (particularly of the mainstream variety) are very much plot-based. Who’s the bad guy, and how do we stop him? I greatly enjoy all of these stories, whether they’re seven-book series or blockbuster movies, but I often can’t get myself to really care about plot. It’s one thing to passively absorb someone else’s plot—you can do so with enjoyment and interest and admiration. But to care enough to create a plot, all of its details and logistics and creativity? I just… fall flat.

In my current project, what I enjoyed writing the most was the character moments, the quiet conversations, the intimate relationships. And often what I enjoy reading/watching the most are the characters and their relationships, romantic and otherwise.

So I’m trying to develop stories that explore these elements more exclusively, without a lot of plot bogging it down. However, I can’t say I’m a fan of literary works, at least not as much as commercial stuff. I always prefer cheesy blockbusters to Oscar pics, and I’ll take a cliché dystopian over an award-winning exploration of the human condition every time.

Can a commercial character-driven story exist? What would it look like? What does a commercial work have that draws me in, and what does a literary work have that keeps me at a distance?

I think there might just be an interesting project waiting at the crux of those questions…

Of course, this is all just a way to procrastinate working on revision, because I have no idea what I’m doing. So let’s focus on this instead! 🙂


About J. Sevick

Just write.
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2 Responses to Character-Driven Stories

  1. In order to have a character driven story, define what that means. It does not mean that the story is centered around a character, his activities and relationships. Character-driven means something quite narrow. It is best observed in the theater.
    Any change of character, psychological or physical, will result from a change of circumstances: Character goes outside. Character brushes teeth. Character makes breakfast. Otherwise the character is quite boring.
    If you’re writing about the imponderables, what goes on in someone’s mind (not imagination), then to make it interesting you must plot that out. X follows W, not Q.

    • J. Sevick says:

      I think the theater is an excellent example for a lot of character-driven stories, focused more on the internal development of a character rather than the external achievement of a goal. Most of these definitions and categories are fairly arbitrary, given that a story can be multiple things at one time, or many different things at different times. So you’re right that specifically character-driven stories are a narrow group.

      Thanks for the comment! 🙂

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