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Should You Write Character-Based or Plot-Driven Stories?

No matter what genre you write in, if you write genre at all, it's important to consider.

In the literary world, you’ll always see a bit of a pushback against genre work. It’s formulaic, the literary folk say. It’s obvious, it’s recyclable—you can get what’s going to happen before you even pick it up. Literary, on the other hand, has a quality of freedom to it, a genuine wonder as to what these characters are going to do; they don’t need magic and dragons or robots and aliens to craft a thoughtful, gripping narrative because the stories are character-based, and the only way to maybe predict what might happen is if you come to know that character well.

While I’d love to say the literary folk are wrong, at least about genre being so formulaic, the fact is that any genre has come about because of their formulas—their “conventions,” so to speak. And one of the biggest conventions of any genre is the structure of its plot: a storyline that readers like and can predict when they walk into any one section of the bookstore.

In romance, the love interests meet, hook up, usually break up, and then find their way back together again. In horror, the story builds little pebbles of tension into a mountain of a (typically catastrophic) climax. In fantasy and science fiction, there’s a Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG) that the main character goes on a heroic quest to defeat. And in mystery, there’s, well, a mystery that needs solving. All of these plot structures have come to be cornerstones of their genre, and the characters—all in their respective worlds and dilemmas—follow them.

Plot and Character Drive for Genre Work

However, just because a story is a certain genre, doesn’t mean literary stories can’t be plot-based, or that genre work can’t be character-driven. A coming-of-age story isn’t constrained to genre, for instance, and gives the reader a comforting sense that they will, in fact, experience something that challenges their mindset and makes them grow up; the reader is simply there for the ride.

Moreover, genres like fantasy can take a fresh new twist when their typical plot structures are guided solely by character’s actions, cause and effect, that gives even the most seen and done plot a sense of mystery—because if the character is made well, and they face genuine adversity, then it makes the reader ask if they actually will ever beat that BBEG or figure out the mystery; it shakes the plot faith and keeps people reading, wondering, and most importantly, whipping through the pages.

An example of a fantastic character-driven story is Patricia Highsmith’s psychological thriller, The Talented Mr. Ripley. Despite being technically a genre work, the story is told in such a way that the events are entirely decided and dictated by the main character, Mr. Ripley’s, actions. Every action has a consequence, which forces Ripley to act again, only to spawn more consequences—and the reader is helpless to do anything other but watch and wait for the other shoe to drop, if it ever does. While I won’t spoil the ending, I will say that it absolutely subverts the expectation for a genre ending, and it sticks with me to this day.

On the other hand, there’s no doubt that the work of famous romance writer Nora Roberts follows the comforting pattern we all know and love: two strangers meeting, falling in love, and figuring it out. But Nora Roberts spices her romances up with hints of danger, too; Night Shift in Keep You Close center on a radio show host falling in love with the detective helping keep her safe from a vindictive and obsessive radio caller. It’s but one example of her many books, but while it follows the romance plot line predictably, it still delivers a slice of entertainment and thrill that, when one wants to simply settle down in their favorite reading chair with a good story and a mug of tea, is extremely valuable, especially when you just want to escape for a while.

The Kind I Love to Write

Personally, in my own work, I find character-driven stories to be the most satisfying to write. Even if I were to follow the most typical plot structure for fantasy and nail their beats down, it’s the character that does all the dancing. And when genres are so heavily saturated, that character’s dancing is often the tool that separates one book from another, providing a fresh twist on the typical plot in a way that makes dragons, kings, and magic all seem brand new again. Does it make plotting the book a disaster? Yes.

I can hardly, if ever, predict what my characters are going to do until it comes time for them to do it, and I’ve gotten stuck more than once trying to force them into a plot outline that went directly against the moves they would “naturally” make. But does it create more compelling scenes when the characters’ convictions guide that plot and turn expectations on their heads? Yes, again. Plot-driven stories are ones that suck the creativity right out of me, and I find writing them to be a chore.

Still, for all my love of writing character-driven stories, I’ll also find myself curling up with classic, tried-and-true, plot-driven genre work, because as I said before, it’s comforting. It’s reliable, while still providing fun little twists and turns, and it’s exactly what it promises: good entertainment. Where character-driven stories, to me, are like a rich meal you savor once in a while to make them special, the genre stories are the bread and butter, the filling and hearty meals that color the day-to-day. At the end of the day, the fact is that authors have incredible success with both styles of writing, and readers will gladly gobble up both of them—so when it comes to figuring out which type of story you like to write best, know that there’s no “should” involved.

Write what you love to write. You’ll find people who love to read it, too.

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