Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Character Based v. Plot Based Fiction

Are you writing a character based novel or plot based novel?

A lot of us will insist that we are writing character based fiction because we've spent what seems like ages developing our characters. Our characters are engaging and funny, and they are the reason people read our work.

But we might be wrong.

What is plot based fiction?

Take a moment to think of J.R.R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. There are quite distinct characters, each offering a different perspective to the story. The characters are memorable and, even if we read this story way back in childhood, we still remember them.
Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings. Photo: http://www.thegalleryofheroes.com/
This does not make Lord of the Rings a character based story, though. In fact, due to the task-based nature, it's a decidedly plot-based story: Frodo must return the ring. The plot comes from outside of Frodo. He is not driven to do it, and the task could have been given to anyone with similar characteristics to Frodo's. Sorry, Lord of the Rings fans, as much as you love Frodo, the story could have still happened with a different protagonist.

Plot based fiction—boiled down:
  1. Interesting and engaging characters
  2. A task falls upon the main character
  3. Another character could possibly fill the role if current main character was sick
  4. The plot comes from outside the character and he is forced to do something about it

So what makes a novel “character based”?

Now consider A Separate Peace by John Knowles. It is Gene who drives this story from the very beginning, and it is specifically Gene's story: Gene is jealous of Finny; Gene causes the fall from the tree; Gene is wracked with guilt and struggles with himself; Gene confesses. Once that confession is out, the mock trial begins and Finny's second fall occurs.
Parker Stevenson as Gene (left) and John Heyl as Finny in the 1973 film version of A Separate Peace. Photo: http://www.sheimagazine.com/

A character based plot is one that is forced into action by the character. If Gene hadn't been jealous and if he hadn't wrestled with his own being, even the seemingly outside actions wouldn't happen.

Character based fiction—boiled down:
  1. Interesting and engaging characters
  2. The main character is motivated by something that forces him into action—usually to make a mistake or seek something
  3. The story wouldn't happen if the main character weren't there to begin the action
  4. The plot comes from inside the main character
And there you have it.

The term “plot-based” is not one that denigrates a story. Characters can be rich and have a transformation in a novel that revolves around outside obstacles as much as in a character based novel—in fact they should.


  1. Interesting points. I think SF and Fantasy both tend to prefer the plot driven stories over character, possibly because of the pulp and adventure roots they have. LOTR was an attempt at more literary fantasy but still hits the plot more than the character. I am finding myself trying to think of one example of character driven SF or Fantasy and am coming up blank. I am sure they exist, I just cannot think of them, possibly due to it being late :)

  2. I think you're right about sci-fi and fantasy--it's difficult to come up with an example of character driven plots there--maybe something by Ray Bradbury? Still, just because LOTR is plot driven, that does not mean it isn't literary. Literary fiction can be either character driven or plot driven. I mean, Cormac McCarthy is definitely considered literary and his characters are usually struggling with deep issues while trying to get follow through with the things they need to do to resolve "outer" issue.

    Thanks for reading an commenting, Aretues!