Friday, March 10, 2006

Are You Character Driven Or Plot Driven?

Yesterday a college-aged relative and I got into a big discussion of character- vs. plot-driven stories. He had an assignment involving character-driven narratives and felt the professor hadn't done a very good job of explaining what she wanted. (They never do.)

I've always thought I preferred character-driven to plot-driven stories, and I've always thought (probably since the day I read about them in a book review somewhere) that I understood what they were. So I explained to young college boy that a character-driven story is one in which character is more important and that a plot-driven story was one in which the plot is more important.

It made sense to me.

But C(ollege)B(oy) said, "Nonsense. Character and plot should be equal."

Well, how was I supposed to argue with that? Of course character and plot should be equal. But in reality, they often aren't.

So I went on to say that I've always thought the Sherlock Holmes stories were character driven. The plots were impossible to follow and involved great leaps. The stories were all about Sherlock.

"Nonsense," CB replied. "Of course the plots were important."

(I'm paraphrasing College Boy, by the way.)

As we got further and further into the conversation, I discovered we'd both read Edith Wharton's short story Roman Fever. "Okay," I said. "Roman Fever is character driven. It's all about the two mothers."

"No, no, no!" CB cried. "It's about the plot that's revealed in flashback!"

Could this mean that whether a story is character or plot driven is all in the mind of the beholder?

We didn't actually start shouting and throwing things, but the conversation did get heated. So I went on-line to try to find some assistance. I found a lot of stuff, but nothing definitive.

Isn't that just like the Internet?

So I had to think about this whole situation. And what I came up with was that I was forgetting the word driven in character driven and plot driven. It's not so much that character is more important in the character- driven story or that plot is more important in the plot-driven story. It's that the character drives the story in a character-driven story. What happens happens because of who the character is. A character changing in a character-driven story is part of what happens.

Remember last summer when I read Rust Hills' Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular? He said that in a story something happens to someone. Perhaps short stories are character driven, what with the focus on the character?

Back to my theorizing. Perhaps what happens in a character-driven story has to happen the way it does because of who the character is. While in a plot-driven story what happens happens and it just doesn't matter who the characters are.

So I'm going to suggest that the Joey Pigza books by Jack Gantos are character driven. What happens happens because of who Joey is. Perhaps more traditional series books that rely on similar plots are plot driven. The characters could be replaced without the plot having to change.

All speculation here, folks.

An interesting note: When I was looking for character- and plot-driven info on-line, I found a lot of sites related to writing for television. This was thought provoking, of course. One thought I had was that what I think I've seen referred to as visual literacy really is becoming more and more important in our culture. Another thought I had is that sitcoms may be character driven. That thought sort of comes out of nowhere, but I did have it sometime yesterday afternoon.

A less interesting note: In some places above I hyphenated character and plot driven and in some places I didn't. I'm aware of that. I wasn't just being sloppy. I tried to hyphenated them when they were followed by a noun. As in plot-driven stories. But not in cases where they were note. As in that story isn't character driven. I learned that rule from one of my publsher's copyeditors. It just doesn't seem right to me to go both ways, but copyeditors rule.

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