How to Find Balance Between Character-Driven and Plot-Driven Writing

 Yesterday I talked about character-driven writers and plot-driven writers.  Based on comments it seems we have more character-driven people, but there are a few plotters out there as well.


Now, of course, we all strive to find a balance of both.  The best stories have an engaging plot and memorable characters.  I used the picture above as an example.  Titanic had a major plot driving the characters--that whole ship sinking thing did require a reaction.  However, I still remember Jack and Rose's characters and their personal stories.  And not just because Leo is so darn purty.

But from what I've read, not many of us are going to naturally excel at both sides.  It appears that most writers are going to have a strength in one and have to work at the other because the brains of the character-driven and plot-driven are wired differently.

Character-driven writers tend to be more right-brained and, as a result, are more likely to be pantsers.  They get the spark of the idea and start writing, letting the characters lead the way.  Plot-driven, on the other hand, are more likely to be plotters who outline, chart, and know the conflict and turning points of their story before they put pen to page.  Each of us can learn from the other.

If you are a character-driven pantser...

  • Try a very rough version of plotting.  The thought of coming up with a detailed outline gives me hives, so I know that won't work for me.  But it doesn't have to be that detailed.  
Start w/ your hook, 2-3 plot turning points, and the ending.  (These can all be one sentence items).  So for an 80k book, up to 20K sets up beginning, 20K marks first turning point, 40K turning second point, 60K final turning point/complication and on to resolution near 80K
  • Heidi Willis offers a similar suggestion with a bit more detail.


Stage1 (10%) draw reader in, identification with hero
TurningPoint (10%) new opportunity, new journey often followed by MC refusing totake the journey or by into the opportunity
Stage2 (15%) hero reacts, formulates plan
Stage3 (25%) hero is overcoming obstacles
TurningPoint (at the 50% mark) hero must commit, there is no turning back
Stage4 (25%) goal is more visible, stakes are higher
TurningPoint (at 75% mark) Major setback, a do or die moment
Stage5: (15%) Final push; conflict becomes overwhelming, MC must giveeverything; accellerated pace; MC determines his or her own fate.
Stage6: Aftermath, what life are they living now



  • And for even more detail of this method, check out this site.

If you can get those major points out of your head and onto paper, this gives you a rough guide of what your characters need to be directed toward.  And it also helps you avoid the following pitfalls of the character-driven, panster:

  • Characters who are wonderful but wander around and do a whole lot of nothing besides navel-gazing
  • A plot that is flimsy or contrived.
  • A plot that is full of holes.

On the other hand, if you are a plot driven writer...

  • You need to play therapist with your characters.  If you were their counselor and had them in for a first session, you would first complete a personal history.  Know where your characters have come from.
  • And I don't mean their favorite color.  I think those character sheets you can fill out can be great, but they are often surface questions.  You need the deeper stuff.  What were the three defining moments in the character's life that made them who they are?  If they are sarcastic and push people away know why.  If your MC is afraid of dogs, there better be a reason.  
  • You don't necessarily need to dump all of their backstory into the book, but you need to know that information so you can know how they will react in certain situations.
  • Don't slack on your secondary characters.  You may not need to know them as deeply as your MC (although I try to), but you need to breathe life into them.  Their personal history is that breath.

If you don't do these things, you'll fall into the pitfalls of the plot-driven writer:

  • Flat characters
  • Stereotypes--bitchy blonde cheerleader, wise old man, quirky best friend, etc.
  • Characters who act inconsistently or unrealistically because they are being bent to fit the structured plot
  • A story that is exciting but doesn't connect with the reader because they feel no attachment to the MC
  • Characters who do not change internally by the end of the story--no emotional arc

Alright, I hope that helps.  I may give the rough plotting a try because I am a hopeless pantser.  Hopefully I don't break out into a rash.  :)


So if you're a pantser, have you attempted an alternative style of plotting?  What works for you?  If you're a plotter (oh how I envy you), how do you make sure your characters are two-dimensional and memorable?

**Today's Theme Song**
"I Will Remember You" - Sarah McLachlan
(player in sidebar, take a listen)