Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 20: Plot- vs. Character-Driven Fiction

Larry Correia, whose debut novel Monster Hunter International hit the market this summer, joins us for a discussion of plot-driven vs. character driven fiction. We start with a definition of terms and a discussion of the battlefield. Then we dive into the nuts and bolts of how to write what it is you want to be writing.

This week’s Writing Excuses is brought to you by Audible. Head over to Audiblepodcast.com/excuse for a free audio book and a 14-day trial. And at our recommendation, try out Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Writing Prompt: Come up with a plot-driven story, and then try to make it good with boring characters.


43 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 3 Episode 20: Plot- vs. Character-Driven Fiction”

  1. Cool! I emailed the show a few weeks back on this subject and voila! here is the podcast. Thanks guys, although DO NOT claim to be the inspiration for this or any podcast. Still cool to have it.

  2. Last week, you tell us you are going to split the podcast in two, now you are skipping a week to present something else. The glass shards get to bounce around in my brain for another week. I would rather you not mention splitting a podcast if you are not going to post it the next week. Just say that we will get to this later. That I can deal with. Either that or send me the second half so I can stop chewing on the carpet.
    I feel that you are doing this to me on purpose, and I hate you all.

    If this is all because of Jordo, fine, I will hate him instead, till the time I know that, don’t sleep, don’t look away, don’t even blink, lest my dark forces take you…

  3. Interesting thoughts. Thanks, guys. I like the idea that “strong characters keep people interested in the plot,”and also that it doesn’t have to be an either or.

  4. Rafael, this was totally you. Every time we record we go through our list of recent requests and see if anything jumps out at us, and yours sounded like a cool topic. So yay! Your prize is…this episode. Nobody else listen to it, okay?

  5. For me, this is one of the problems that a lot of massive budget genre films struggle with. I watched Wolverine last week, and that movie was very much plot driven. The characters were incredibly shallow, they lacked clear motivations, and they did things that made no sense so that they could drive the plot. However, if you look at a movie like The Dark Knight, then you see a focus on character that made the movie awesome.

    I love the point that you guys make about driving your story with both character and plot. One of my least favorite books of all time was Willa Cather’s “My Antonia.” That was a book that focused 100% on character, but eschewed any form of plot. Some people love that, but I found that nothing happened in the entire story. You need to care about the characters in order to care about the plot, but without a plot you will have a bunch of interesting characters that nothing happens to.

  6. Thank you Dan…I think. And the thing I said about your picture…wait no, I said that about Brandon’s picture…never mind!


  7. Impotent threats and whining WEKM? tsk tsk. *forcibly takes another man card* (ya have three left Susy)

  8. Would a suitably exciting plot with dull central characters be the apocalyptic storming of the WE recording room by an army of rabid Dan Brown fan-zombies? :)

  9. On a (somewhat) serious note, I like to think to think that this subject is not (as pointed out in podcast) an either/or proposition, but more of a sliding scale thing. Some stories lean toward character interactions while others slide toward plot points. I like to think of these these terms this way:

    Plot Driven-Actions occur beyond the control of the characters and they react to them. Most common are horror and disaster stories, where the characters are at the mercy of faceless forces of nature which they can do nothing but scream and run from.

    Character Driven-Characters action push the plot along. If a character(s) does nothing, the story ends there.

    Of course, characters reactions can also be seen as actions. Let say there is a plot point, like a fire. The characters react to the fire in different ways, call 9/11, rush to save a person trapped inside or stand by and do nothing. Those actions then lead to other things and slide the story from plot to character.

    And lets not forget that antagonist/villains are also characters. The best character driven stories are those were opposing characters act/react to each others moves.

    Final note: Something that Howard said about how he read a story got me thinking. This might be as much about how the reader views the story as much as how the writer crafts it.

  10. Great podcast guys and congrats on the sponsor. Audible is Awesome! I usually spend an hour a day driving and Audible has saved me from the agonizing boredom of the drive. Plus it’s a totally new experience listening to a book read out loud – I pick up on so many things and it’s helped my writing by making me really listen to the language of the books.

    Do the trial. You know you want to. And hey, free book :D

  11. You know, I always hear how many people have trouble coming up with endings, and I have never understood it. I never have trouble with endings. In fact, when brainstorming a book, the ending is usually the thing that I can see in clearest detail even before I type a single syllable. And with every chapter I write I am constantly measuring how far I am from the ending and how many steps I have to take to get from where I am to that last page. I guess I’m just one of those writers who writes the ending first, even though I don’t literally write it first.

  12. I quite like the view that being plot-driven or character-driven is about the types of climaxes and resolutions you use- it feeds nicely into how I’ve been thinking about writing lately, which is in terms of answering the Six Really Big Questions. (when, where, who why, what, how?)

    You know, I always hear how many people have trouble coming up with endings, and I have never understood it. I never have trouble with endings.

    I think there are two general sorts of trouble with endings. One is “I have no idea where this is going”, which means you’ve got a really character-heavy and plot-light story, and you probably need to be thinking about what plots might emerge from these characters, rather than just sit there discovery writing aimlessly. The questions you need in this sort of situation (I always think of writing in terms of “what questions am I answering”) are “what?” and “how?”

    The other, which I’ve started running into now, is “I know where I’m going, but I don’t know the details.” It stems from the opposite problem I think- having figured out the plot but glossing over characters to some degree. The questions you need to answer here are “who?” and “why?”

  13. I should point out additionally that “when” is pretty important too- not in the sense of “when is the story set?” but more in the sense of progress from one point to another- when does the character or the plot change into something different? Which scenes do these changes go in?

    I got into trouble because I was thinking of a main character in the way you think of a side character- laying everything out for her in terms of who she is, and not thinking about where she was going. Once I asked that question the ending all unraveled nicely.

    If you’re not having trouble with the ending, it’s probably because you’re just butting up against the same issues in the middle of your plot because your resolution is so strong. I always feel like I’m cheating if I know where I’m going in advance as soon as I start, so a little struggle over the ending helps motivate me to get planning and figure out what I need to write.

  14. This was a great topic. I feel that I can forgive you for making me wait a week, so you could give us this.
    I never could understand how people could try and say that plot driven or character driven were the only choices. I always thought that you needed both. It was nice to hear you guys explain it so clearly and show that you can do both at the same time and really should.
    For now this podcast will keep my OCD demons at bay, to further help that along, I am going to go blow stuff up today, while re-listening to season 2. And I get to get paid for it too. I love my job.
    Wow, I feel better already!

  15. Something Rafael said above jumps out at me: “This might be as much about how the reader views the story as much as how the writer crafts it.” I think there’s a third division here. I’m currently reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry for the first time. To me, there’s nothing particularly special about either the characters or the plot of the series. Both are fairly fantasy-standard. What’s keeping me in these books is the craft Kay uses–the writing is so lyrical and so beautiful that I keep reading just to see how he uses the language. More than once I have been emotionally moved by a scene because his descriptions are so evocative. For me, this story is neither plot-driven nor character-driven, it’s craft-driven. Does that make sense to anyone else?

  16. I have listened to all of the podcasts from the start of your first ‘season’. I love the format. Please do not change it – you are in the proverbial zone.

    Since I did not want any changes – I never commented before.

    My constructive criticism is with regards to your advertising. Audible’s ‘free’ offer requires that your listeners relinquish their credit card information or it is not available.

    I don’t know about you but if I am getting something free – I don’t give away my CC info to get it. When the 14 day ‘trial’ is over – THEN ask me for my info. Otherwise it is simply an implied threat.

    I know – they did it – not you. But anyone’s partners reflect on themselves. Furthermore hearing feedback like this from you carries more weight with them than hearing it from me.

    Given that Audible sponsors many podcasts I would infer that it is somewhat lucrative for you to partner with them. I wish you well and I will continue to listen and to learn but unfortunately until they retool their offer the advertising will not grow their business.

  17. I think the only problems that arise between characters and plots is when the characters do stupid things, things out of character, things nobody actually would do just so the story can get to a specific point. When characters acts in service to the plot in this manner it diminishes the effect of the story.

    As for categorization, what helps me is to look at problem type for the core problems of the story, and their complications. If happiness is in danger or lacking, it’s usually in one of these areas:

    – Lack or threat to physical safety (death, killing, great harm, being beaten)
    – Lack or threat to social relationships (romances, family, affairs, ostracism, discrimination, etc.)
    – Lack or threat to freedom (slavery, censorship, the ability to pursue happiness, etc.)
    – Lack or threat to possession (someone stealing something precious)
    – Lack or threat to meaningfulness (the drudge life, the miner going to Harvard plot)
    – Lack or threat to self-respect/goodness (redemption, morals)

    It seems to me that “character” stories do what Dan said, and that’s focus on, i.e. allot more stage time to, the characters themselves (quirks, histories, personalities, etc.) and the moral choices being made. They also tend to focus on non-physical safety problems.

  18. I’ve been listening for awhile, and this last episode made me want to drop by and say thanks for all the work you guys do. So, thanks! Keep up the great work! (And I’ll think about getting that King book you recommended.)

  19. First of all… “Buy Dan Bacon”…?

    Am I the only one that saw that, and is there some inside joke that we’re missing?

    Regarding character vs. plot, I think that you can get caught up in very high-order analysis of the point just by framing the question in that way. As Larry said, it isn’t an either/or situation. Planting the ‘vs.’ in the middle can inject artificial separation. Yes, characters and plot are separate on one level, but on another level they are very much tied together.

    I think of it this way… the process of pitching a book or a story can be boiled down to answering two questions for the editor/publisher: why does this story need to be told, and why are you (the writer) the person to tell it?

    It is much the same for me as a writer considering the figurative Idea Pond out back (ok, and sometimes the Idea Overflow Runoff Ditch), trying to pull together bits and pieces of character, plot, setting, etc., to craft a story that is worth telling. I feel like that editor, only now interrogating the characters: Tell me, Mr/Ms Character, why is your story important, and why should you be the one in it?

    Once I have characters that matter in a story that matters, I find that I naturally want to focus on both character and plot. Let’s face it, a good story is going to have both. It is less a macro matter of story length focus, and more a micro matter of momentary focus. How do you frame any given moment in the story, any given turn of the plot? It becomes a matter of perspective, and what you want the reader to focus on, because good characters will be good (believable, real, robust) even when they take a momentary backseat to plot.

    In my opinion, the relationship between character and plot should be like riding a roller-coaster next to the Dalai Lama. There are times you focus on the ride, and there are times when you find yourself checking on him, just to make sure he’s OK, enjoying himself, and not about to vomit.

  20. This reminded me of your discussion of new vs familiar. Readers of different genres probably expect certain proportions of plot to character. I’m with you guys in that I prefer a good balance, and that might be one of the things that attracts me to fantasy. Just think about a typical sort of fantasy story: Normal person becomes hero (character) while caught up in some apocalypse/war (plot).

  21. I think the only problems that arise between characters and plots is when the characters do stupid things, things out of character, things nobody actually would do just so the story can get to a specific point. When characters acts in service to the plot in this manner it diminishes the effect of the story.

    TV Tropes has an awesome name for this. *looks it up instantly via the magic of the internet* Oh yes, Writer On Board. ;)

    In terms of the list of conflicts you’ve got there, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a book described as “character-driven” if it’s missing the internal moral dilemma conflict type- something to think about if you want to shoot towards stronger character climaxes. Analysing conflict types is probably a lot more useful than talking about character driven and plot driven stories, I think. :)

  22. I went to audible and a pop offered me a live chat. So I took it. Here is a copy/paste of our interaction:

    – – – – – – – – – –

    Thank you for choosing Audible. A representative will be with you shortly.

    You are now chatting with Jeanne.

    Jeanne: Thank you for contacting Audible, this is Jeanne, how may I assist you today?

    You: Hello, I’m hesitant to give up my credit card info for a free trial…

    Jeanne: I understand your concern.

    Jeanne: You will not be charged anything during your free trial.

    You: How does it work exactly after 14 days?

    Jeanne: After the 14days you will begin the Gold Monthly plan for $14.95. If you wish not to continue you can always cancel before your 14day trial is up.

    You: What is the gold plan?

    Jeanne: With this membership, you will receive one credit each month. (1credit=1book)

    Jeanne: Any additional credit card purchases will be at a 30% membership discount.

    Jeanne: You also receive complimentary daily issue of New York Times or Wall Street Journal which is included with our membership plans.

    You: Is there a silver plan?

    Jeanne: No, we do not have a silver plan available.

    You: :) – That seems deceptive.

    You: I guess bronze is out of the question.

    Jeanne: You can try out the Free trial and if you choose not to proceed, you can always cancel before you free trial is up.

    You: Ok, serious question. Do you guys use DRM?

    Jeanne: We do use DRM to protect our files.

    You: How does that work? I’ve heard it is problematic.

    Jeanne: Well, its mainly used with burning cd’s.

    Jeanne: Usually we only allow our customers to burn the audio book once.

    Jeanne: But if you were to ever encounter any problems burning a cd we can make exceptions.

    You: Thank you Jeanne.

    Jeanne: It was my pleasure to have assisted you.

    Jeanne: Would you like for me to stand by while you complete the registration for your Free Trial?

    You: Ok, I’ll try it on the other tab.

    Jeanne: If you like, I can send you the link.

    You: I think I signed in but it says I have no credits.

    Jeanne: May I please have your audible user name?


    Jeanne: One moment please.

    Jeanne: Could you please verify your email address?


    Jeanne: I’m sorry for the delay. I’ll be right with you.

    Jeanne: I was able to pull up your account.

    Jeanne: I see that you did not sign up, you only created an account.

    Jeanne: Would you like for me to sign you up with a membership where you will receive a credit?

    You: I thought the 14 day free trial was a membership

    You: I didn’t do that?

    Jeanne: You seem to have not signed up through that link.

    Jeanne: If you like I can sign you up from my end for that trial.

    You: Ok.

    Jeanne: Ok, one moment please.

    Jeanne: Ok, if you refresh your page, you will be able to see you have one credit available.

    You: Ok, it says one credit, thanks.

    You: And this is the 14-day trial?

    Jeanne: Yes, this is the 14-day free trial.

    Jeanne: Is there anything else I can assist you with today?

    You: No, thank you for your help. :)

    Jeanne: It was my pleasure to have assisted you!

    Jeanne: Thank you for chatting with us. We value your feedback. Please click the CLOSE button at top right to answer a few questions about your experience with us today.

    – – – –

    Post Chat Thoughts:
    1) Wow, Jeanne is helpful.
    2) I might not be at tech savy as I thought.
    3) I am the only 30 year old man still using emoticons. :(

    The membership – after 14 days I get 1 credit for $15. Which is obviously less than retail. Without this membership the books on audible are little more expensive than on iTunes, which is a free service. With the membership the books are 30% off…

    I think if your listen to 1 or 2 audio books a month this will be a good way to go.

    Thanks for the link guys. Hope my long post is informative and not too vexing.

    Now I just need to find something worthy of my 1 free credit. On Writing is tempting but the new Dan Brown costs $35! (Don’t judge… you’re going to read it too.)

  23. Yes, yes I will. I should say support Dan Brown and local book stores and BUY his book. I’m not going to, I haven’t the 35 dollars to spend at the moment either especially with another book coming out in twelve days I have no choice but to buy.

  24. Great show, as usual. I always look forward to the episodes! I’ve even gotten my wife interested in the show.

    Hmmm…Larry C…now how about Mike Williamson? John Ringo? David Drake? O.S. Card?

    Don’t ask for much, do I?


  25. I didn’t enjoy this discussion as much as I did man of your other podcasts — I liked Howard’s emphasis on writer’s process, whether you develop your story primarily through characters or plot. That is the most useful element for me as a writer. However, it seems to me that you left out a third alternative which is very important to genre writers — science fiction writers, certainly, and also mystery and thriller writers — and that is the Idea driven story. For me, ideas come first, characters come second, and then the plot takes shape. When I don’t know what to do with plot, I go back and just focus on the characters until I find the pieces I need. A discussion of how to turn ideas into plots and characters would be useful.

  26. And don’t forget setting-driven stories, either. Sometimes the most engaging part of the story is the world or time that it takes place in. The Wheel of Time is certainly an example of that.

  27. I always thought of WoT as incredibly plot-driven, personally. If I’d apply the term “setting-driven” to anything, it would be books like Lord of the Rings which have oceans full of backstory that you could just drown in.

  28. O.S. Card calls the “setting-driven” stories “Milieu” stories–stories that are about the world; the characters just supplement the reader’s understanding of that world/universe.

    I would have to agree that WoT is definitely plot driven, by book seven all of the characters and scenery get swallowed by the massive amount of sub-plots.

    I am a first-time listener and enjoyed the podcast. I liked the digs at Lit courses…

    Howard and Brandon, I look forward to hearing more in person at LTUE in Feb.

  29. Call me a complete amateur, because I am, but I had never even thought of the distinction between these two styles. Well, that clears up a lot of problems I’ve had. Thanks guys!

  30. Love the podcast, although my co-workers (who have no interest in writing…or reading) are sick to death of listening to Writing Excuses when I’m in the office.

    I began reading Stephen King’s “On Writing” four years ago. When I got to the assignment part, I labored for two days to complete it. I went to King’s official site to submit it and had to search a while before I found a FAQ asking where to send the assignment. The reply was rude, stating that “Mr. King” didn’t actually think anybody would do the assignment and that he doesn’t accept them (contrary to what he stated in his book) and he was too busy writing best-sellers and we were losers for paying money to feed his ego (well, something like that). I was furious. I stopped reading On Writing and never read another word of his work.

    After listening to your podcast, I decided to give the book another shot and I’m glad I did. Like most developing writers, I assume, I have spent hundreds of dollars on books on writing, but have found all but two or three of them to be the same information inside different covers. King’s book is refreshing to those of us who need a kick in the pants and motivation to put the pen to paper. Side Note: Out of curiosity, I checked the FAQ section on King’s site and the assignment question now has an answer worded much more politely.

    Thanks and keep up the great work!!!

  31. I agree that character-driven v. plot-driven fiction is a sub-issue to the broader category of conflict types. But I do agree that character v. plot is probably the murkiest issue in that category.

    I think that there are a lot of things that a reader/listener/viewer can look to in deciding whether a story is character or plot. The ending, climax, contiguity, etc. But these aren’t really helpful as much from a writing standpoint because you shouldn’t be writing stories as a slave to a particular king of ending, etc.

    What’s useful to me to ask myself when writing is how I intend the reader to Experience the story. Do I want them to be wondering what happens next or wondering how the character is reacting to what he or she is seeing? Maybe I just want them to be caught up in wonder or to wish they were the main character.

    The best example of Sci-Fi character based fiction for me is The Matrix. You know only what Neo knows at any given time, you’re wondering what’s going to happen to him next and you’re caught up in the coolness of who Neo is. You even see the blurry world through his eyes at some points, which is really rare for Film. Other examples I think include basically the entire Romance genre. Unless you feel what the character is feeling, there’s no point. It’s basically what carried Twilight through the dearth of all other literary aspects. Fantasy I wouldn’t expect to get much of anything character based because of the long history of multiple viewpoints and the simple fact that everything is so foreign in High Fantasy that there might be very few characters that we can pour ourselves into, so to speak.

    Another good example of a character based Sci-Fi in my opinion is Ender’s Game. You really just want the experience of being a genius kid. But this one might be confusing to analyze because it has an event-style ending. I’m going to go out there though and say that this is probably because the author didn’t know how to write a character based ending at that point, and he simply defaulted back into a “big reveal”, plot-solver event that was so common to short story sci-fi of the time. Of course, the seeds needed to be spread throughout the story to support that, and the story focused on the Bugger war thing, but a different story with genius kid who just tells his instructors to shove it at the end would’ve stood well enough on its own, I think. Rambling. Bye.

  32. Does anyone here have trouble blending character (POV, idiosyncrasies, habits, etc.) into plot smoothly? Do you guys have any suggestions or a method on how to do it effectively?

    I’m having trouble with this. I like to write extremely plot-driven, and when I try to force character elements into a scene, it just seems awkward.

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