Plot vs character is one of those questions that everyone seems to answer a little differently. And it’s a question that both writers and audiences seem to have equal claim to. “Do you like plot driven or character driven movies/books?”
But as writers (and as audience members), it’s also one that we’re all kind of guessing at, it seems like. To use myself as an example, I always answer that I prefer character driven stories because I LOVE a great character.
A bad plot CAN be saved by a great character,
but a bad character CAN’T be saved by a great plot.
I still 100% feel this way. So I always thought I was a “character driven” kind of gal. But according to what people usually define as character driven stories, it’s the opposite…
According to this blog post on the topic, I have zero interest in reading any of these character driven stories:
- Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
- An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
- The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
- Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
- Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
- Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
- The Secret History by Donna Tartt
- A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
I have looked at several of these in the past, and I had zero interest. Not even a little bit. They all sounded really boring. (Except I promised my sister I’d read Big Little Lies and give it a real chance, so stay tuned for that.)
But I have seen/read several of the plot driven works listed on that same blog: Ready Player One, Jurassic park, and Da Vinci Code, to be specific. These particular titles weren’t my FAVORITE books/movies of all time, but I certainly had more interest in them than I did in any of the character driven titles listed.
So I have to ask myself why? WHY do I keep claiming to prefer character driven stories? And why weren’t the plot driven stories listed my actual favorites? They were just good, not great (for me). Somehow, according to the research I’ve been doing, I’m neither a plot NOR a character driven kind of gal. So what the heck am I??? Where do I fall on this spectrum?
Reddit – of course.
As usual, this topic came to my attention today because of a reddit thread. This morning someone asked about plot driven and character driven stories, and I scrolled through the many answers offered there. It seemed like every single answer was a little bit different. They all kind of agreed with each other, more or less, but none of them were super clear.
So of course I had to sit there and think, well? How would I describe this to a layperson? And in doing so, I have gained a bit of perspective:
In plot driven stories, plot happens to the character.
In character driven stories, character happens to the plot.
Damn, I’m good. Look how clear and simple that is?
But the thing is, that still doesn’t answer my question about why I – an unabashed character lover – seem to not like character driven stories.
So let’s work backwards. Let’s find a story I LOVED and decide if it’s character driven or plot driven. The story I chose to examine is Loki. This is an excellent example to illustrate what I discovered about myself and about story.
Possible spoilers ahead. Nothing too blatant, but be warned.
So most people would probably describe this entire show as plot driven. Lots of action, things happen to Loki left, right, and center. Things outside of his control, he’s just reacting to stuff. But if we look closer, is it really just plot driven?
For anyone who hasn’t seen the show, a quick overview: Loki makes a choice that he wasn’t supposed to make. Because of that, the TVA – an organization tasked with protecting the timeline and preventing alternate realities from forming – arrests him, removes him from the timeline, and resets the timeline (with a Loki who DIDN’T make the wrong choice). That “correct” Loki continues on, goes on more shenanigans with Thor, ends up on Sakaar, and dies at the hands of Thanos after Ragnarok.
That leaves the “wrong” Loki as a kind of extra. An alternate Loki. They call him a variant. He teams up with the TVA to help track down yet another Loki variant who is running around causing havoc.
Just the fact that the setup is so convoluted makes this sound like it’s plot driven, right? That’s a TON of plot!
But is Loki REALLY the kind of character who doesn’t take control? Who doesn’t act upon the plot? Who LETS things happen to him? Who is just a handsome empty shell for action to happen around? NO!
When you look closely, you discover that Loki may be a plot driven show, but it has a character driven subplot. Like, it’s a plot driven show, but that plot doesn’t work without the character driven story underneath.
- The goal to understand and take down the TVA is plot driven.
- Loki’s journey to understand himself, to become the man he’s supposed to be, that’s character driven.
It’s in the choices he makes. It’s in how he choses to run away at first, but then voluntarily comes back. He choses to go after (and then later help) Sylvie. He admits to Mobius that he does not enjoy hurting people. Tearfully. And we totally buy it. Why? Because Loki is such a STRONG character, from the minute he tries and fails to lift Thor’s hammer in his very first movie.
And then later (bit of a spoiler), another Loki variant puts it so succinctly.
We cannot change. We are broken. Every version of us. Forever.Classic Loki and Kid Loki – Episode 5
And whenever one of us dares to try and fix themselves, they’re sent here to die.
Can you imaging learning that about yourself, and just living with it? Can you imagine having to constantly hide from a dozen alternate versions of yourself, versions who continually make the same mistakes over and over again. Even in exile.
This is all such a beautiful, succinct way to communicate externally what Loki feels internally.
And any regular reader will know my motto is:
Climax is King
Is Loki’s series climax plot driven or character driven? It’s both! Of course it’s both. Because their path to the final scene is all plot. The choice presented to Loki and Sylvie is all plot. But the choice they make is all character. To have two Loki variants arguing over which course of action is correct, based on their character journeys, based on their morality and characterization, that is a character driven choice.
I mean, how can you get together half a dozen versions of one character, and say this show isn’t at least a little bit character driven?
And isn’t that the essence of character driven plots? To focus on the character? Because this plot driven story spends an awful lot of time focusing on Loki’s character. And Ravonna’s, and Mobius’s, and Sylvie’s, and Hunter B-15’s. (Anybody else get a little misty-eyed when B-15 tearfully said “I looked happy”?)
And if this show is so completely plot driven, then why was Loki’s big punishment to be told by an old friend, over and over again in a simulation, “You deserve to be alone, and you always will be.” Something like that wouldn’t hurt so much if this were just about a series of interesting events, right? We wouldn’t get this kind of reaction!
So Which Is it?
Am I a plot driven or a character driven kind of gal?
Well you know what? I think I’m both. I love a great plot, and I LOVE a great character. You can’t have one without the other. And I think the absolute best stories have plenty of both.
I’ve always considered plots to be frameworks (studied and understood through tropes), and character is the meat of the story. You absolutely cannot have one without the other. Without character, your plot is just a list of bullet points. Without plot, your characters exist in a void.
Some genres tend to be more plot driven (action, sci fi, fantasy, slapstick, horror, crime), and some tend more toward character driven stories (romance, women’s fiction, general fiction, memoir).
And I seem to like the ones that break the “rules.” I love character driven sci fi and fantasy (Firefly/Serenity, Uprooted) and plot driven romance (Maid in Manhattan, Stranger Than Fiction). Because these stories that fit somewhere in between have the best of both worlds. They’ve hit that sweet spot of plot and character, recognizing that both are vital.
So the question itself (character driven vs plot driven) is a valid one. There are certainly plenty of books/movies/shows out there that are very clearly one or the other. But I think it’s shortsighted of us to think those are the only two answers. Is it really so crazy for one story to be both plot driven and character driven at the same time? No! And I’m happy to say those stories, the ones that fall somewhere in the middle, those are my favorites.
Can I just make a quick shout out for feminism here? Loki is a beacon of female representation, and I’m here for it. We have multiple named female characters whose role has nothing to do with the fact that they’re female. We have a well rounded platonic relationship between a man and a woman. We have both men and women in positions of authority. We have men being vulnerable, and we have women being tough as nails. And vice versa. Loki has got the GOODS.
Couple this with the fact that Tom Hiddleston bared his ass in Crimson Peak, and then spoke out about that deliberate choice – I’m loving me some Tom these days. 😉