This is a reprint of an article I wrote for the Queensland Writers Centre‘s magazine Writing Queensland. I thought it might be useful to others here who aren’t members (and if you’re not a member WHY NOT?)
From time to time, aspiring writers ask me what is the best kind of story: one that is plot-driven or one that is character-driven? Somehow the idea that the two are distinct and one can be privileged over the other persists. “Character-driven” is usually seen as the mark of serious writing, while “plot-driven” is understood to be written by hacks pandering to the marketplace. This is a false distinction, and a potentially dangerous one at that. No writer can afford to overlook one or the other: a good story is driven by both good plot ideas and good characters. The trick is managing them right.
1. A story isn’t a story until it has people and problems. These two things (character and plot) cannot in any way be conceived outside of each other. An idea for a fascinating character means little until that character is challenged in some way; and a high-stakes plot idea means little if it isn’t focalised through three-dimensional people whose thoughts and feelings can be communicated to the reader.
2. What the writer must know first and foremost is the relationship between the people and the problems. Why is this person involved in this problem? Is it random? Or is it a function of the very person they are? What kind of attempts do they make to solve the problem, and where do those attempted solutions lead them? You must always think of the problem as belonging to somebody: a story describes that relationship between people and their problems.
3. Use the problems to create the narrative steps. How is your character going to get out of their predicament? What new problems can arise? The problems create the horizontal movement of the story, from beginning, through middle, and to the end; the movement that sustains narrative interest and keeps your reader turning pages. In some respects, the plot is driven by character: it evolves uniquely from the people and their responses to the problem they were given on page one.
4. Use the people to create the emotional connection. How does it feel to experience this problem? What history of acts and ideas does the character bring to the problem at hand? What do they think of their problem? This creates the vertical depth of your story; the depth that makes the story emotionally meaningful to your reader. In some respects, the characters are driven by the plot: they evolve uniquely from the narrative trajectory, which brings about their transformation from the person they were on page one, to the person they are when you write “the end”.