A Story Is Driven By Characters, Not Plot

 

by Millie Ho

Kill the plot-driven story with fire.

A plot-driven story sucks. It is not a story but a sequence of events. It is a terrible thing that will make you claw your hair out trying to make all the details fit while retaining reader interest.

I had a tough two weeks plotting my Long-Suffering Manuscript (LSM) because I was exercising too much control over the story instead of transferring that control over to my characters.

And it’s all because of something I call The Found Situation.

For example: a character suddenly finds him or herself in a Situation, and spends the rest of the story navigating that Situation instead of being an active participant. This is a popular formula in stories about institutions, such as students going to a special school, or stories where you are assigned a task and forced to follow instructions on how to reach the objective.

The latest plot of my LSM followed The Found Situation formula. Things went according to plan. Logic preceded emotions. Characters did X because without X, they couldn’t get to Y, and Y had to exist so that nothing went off the rails.

Boring.

A character does not just find him or herself in a situation.

They drive, run, walk, or crawl there.

When I removed the intricate step-by-step plotting and focused purely on characters (traits, motivations, goals, conflicts), the plot started coming together. The characters had more agency. They allowed themselves to make mistakes. Small details I’d been struggling to link together or use in future chapters suddenly became inconsequential.

Why was I doing all that extra work?

The plot is not where the heart of the story is.

Characters. It’s all about the characters.

Characters pull the trigger and stab you in the back.

A plot does not.

Characters are unpredictable and irrational.

A plot is not.

I’m currently plotting Chapter 9 out of (roughly) 28.

I’m now following characters, not calculations.

And it’s never been more face-meltingly fun.

 

 

 

 

This post is dedicated to Rachel C. for being a patron of A Writer’s Path.

Alternately titled “A Story is Driven by Characters.”

Guest post contributed by Millie Ho. Millie is a writer and illustrator from Toronto, Canada. She uses her blog and YouTube channel to document what she’s learned about writing from both the writing process and from books, TV shows, and films.

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38 thoughts on “A Story Is Driven By Characters, Not Plot”

      1. Hi! I am new to blogging and to writing, so pardon any blunders please! Just wanted to thank you for your work on characters driving the bus, and not the plot. Super information for me as I embark on a new project. I really appreciate your wise words!

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  1. Agree completely. My first novel, “The Fourth Law,” was little more than introducing characters and finding out who in the world they were!

    Even in my soon to be released work, “Cursed Hearts,” I introduced a character that I thought I’d kill in two pages. Not only did she live for ten, she is an unexpected beacon of charitas in the midst of my romance-horror story!

    I let them lead me. Plot? That’s just some nasty epiphenomenon we scrape off at the end!

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  2. Writers hear/read the advice to “plant a hook” in the first page or two. More often than not, the “hook” is a situation, with the character merely a stand-in for the reader. Thing is, it often works — look at The Da Vinci Code, et al.
    Actually, I agree with you.

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  3. I don’t know how others do all that plotting and planning. It is an overwhelming idea for me. Perhaps I am just lazy? I prefer to get to know who will be my guides and have them take me where they will. Negotiations don’t even come into it until well after the first draft.

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  4. Absolutely. Your characters drive the story, otherwise your novel is nothing more than a term paper with a nice cover.

    What I love is when a character pulls something that takes you in a completely unexpected direction. An example in “Family Secrets” the new one I’m working on.

    Will and RJ go to a church, little expecting to run right into their two chief suspects in a murder. One get’s away, but the other, the victim/s wife, runs to the altar and declares “Sanctuary”. There is no such thing recognized in US law, and even the church has stepped away from a bit (Way back when, people were declaring sanctuary for anything and everything, most of whom ended up becoming freeloaders off the parish).

    Problem is, Will recognizes she just tossed his department, the Church, and everyone else in sight into a political minefield.

    It ended up making the story even deeper and tossed it int a darker region that I expected.

    And I never planned it. The character did it.

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  5. I love character driven stories. This is why I give my characters a backstory. It informs their perception and gives them particular motivations. And everyone has conflicting motivations, and sometimes perception is reality. Cue character-driven conflict.

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  6. Problem is, Will recognizes she just tossed his department, the Church, and everyone else in sight into a political minefield. There is no such thing recognized in US law, and even the church has stepped away from a bit (Way back when, people were declaring sanctuary for anything and everything, most of whom ended up becoming freeloaders off the parish).

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  7. “A character does not find themselves in a situation.”
    I feel like that one sentence succinctly says it all. That could easily be the heading of a chapter or lecture. And I think you’re right.

    There are more than a few books I’ve read where the plot finds the protagonist, in the form of other characters with crucial information, or conflicts that move to engulf the character, and I definitely find them less satisfying for it. I feel like a good story requires that the protagonist actively choose to engage the conflict, even if the choice is rooted in a threat (such as death).

    One of the worst books I ever read was a story where the protagonists could have slept through the entire story, spent the entire narrative on a gurney in a chemically induced coma, and nothing would have changed.

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  8. The character did it.
    There are more than a few books I’ve read where the plot finds the protagonist, in the form of other characters with crucial information, or conflicts that move to engulf the character, and I definitely find them less satisfying for it.

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  9. I love character driven stories.
    There are more than a few books I’ve read where the plot finds the protagonist, in the form of other characters with crucial information, or conflicts that move to engulf the character, and I definitely find them less satisfying for it.

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  10. So true! I’ve been finding in my writing that although I start with a plan, the character starts changing the plan as the words fall into place on the page. I guess part of me feels lazy going that direction, largely because there isn’t a plan and/or the plan isn’t being followed. The neat freak in me gets panicked by the randomness. However, life is random, random things happen to me. Thanks so much for this write up, makes what I’m doing feel more natural and accepted.

    http://morganwerhen.com

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