If you’ve ever looked into sending queries to agents—or even just spent time reading descriptions of books—you’ve probably seen the term “character-driven story.”
But what does that mean? If you’re not sure how character-driven stories and plot-driven stories are different, you’re not alone. Since this topic first came up in my friend circles a few years ago, I’ve discovered most people don’t actually know the difference.
You might be thinking, “But aren’t all stories character-driven?” and you’re not wrong. I mean, you can’t really have a story without characters, right? But in the world of fiction, “plot-driven” and “character-driven” are different things.
Using a few popular stories to explain it, it’s easy to see the difference.
For a plot-driven story, you can start with the father of fantasy as we know it. The Lord of the Rings is a strong plot-driven story, and we categorize it as that because Frodo has nothing to do with the plot at all. You might say, “Wait, he’s the main character!” And yes, he is! He played a vital role, but the story still would have happened without him. Frodo was just a normal hobbit. He didn’t find the ring, he didn’t go seeking adventure, he was just there. Frodo could have been replaced with anyone—an elf, a dwarf, a human, anything—and the story still would have taken place. He was just an average guy who got swept up in events that were bigger than him.
If you’re looking for a character-driven story, a good example is Game of Thrones. The story in Game of Thrones happens because of complicated actions and interactions happening between characters. Every time someone makes a decision, it radically alters the story’s path. And if we removed these interactions, there wouldn’t be much of a plot left. Just some creepy ice zombie guys who go forgotten most of the time.
It’s also possible for stories to be both. In The Hunger Games, the story could have started with any girl being pulled into the games and struggling to survive. But by the time we get to Mockingjay, she’s grown into a stronger and more determined person, whose actions start to influence the outcome. But because these are split into different books, it’s also safe to say that while Mockingjay is character-driven, The Hunger Games isn’t—it’s plot-driven, instead.
And that’s the biggest difference. If the role of the main character could be played by any type of character without changing the plot, it’s a plot-driven story. And if the plot only happens because of what your characters are doing, it’s a character-driven story. Neither type of story is better than the other, but it’s important to know how to classify your work, especially when you’re sending it to agents.