Character-Driven Stories Are Not Plotless

Character-Driven Stories Are Not Plotless

New novelists of character-driven narratives have a difficult time writing queries because most authors are conditioned to focus on the external conflict of a story.

When these novelists present their queries, they’re pressured to plug it into a format that showcases a series of physical events. But, what happens when the main events that move the plot forward are all internal? They’re dinged for having “no plot.”

This is far from the truth—the plot is strong and present, it’s just not driven by action.

Before moving forward, let us define plot. Plot is the main chain-reaction series of events that create the core of a story. These events can either be external (physical) or internal (mental).

Compared to the size of the novel, there’s very little physical movement or action in The Shining. However, when you look at character development and growth, it’s quite apparent that the focus of the story isn’t the sequence of actions the characters take in order to escape the hotel, but on watching Jack Torrance become unhinged and fall even deeper into his alcoholism before succumbing to his demons, so to speak.

Do things happen in the story? Sure, they go to the hotel, he starts seeing things, Danny is chased, the previous cook returns to help, Wendy tries to protect her son, then the hotel blows up. However, those are things that happen in the subplot, they’re not the Plot.

This is an example of how an action-driven sequence serves as the subplot in a character-driven novel.

Character-driven themes include but are not limited to:

The relationship between one person and something else, such as:

  • another person (friendship, romance, a family rift, superior/subordinate/authority)
  • a pet (a boy and his dog, a girl and her cat)
  • an item (hoarding, the last thing a child made for its mother before passing away, a man’s refusal to sell the house he and his now-deceased wife built together)
  • a social construct (ageism, racism, sexism, ableism, unjust laws)
  • alcohol/substances (substance abuse, alcoholism, a strict aversion to it all)
  • religion (struggling with, finding, or accepting Main Character’s own or someone else’s faith)
  • environment (escaping the “fate” of fatherless boys in a crime-ridden community)
  • coming of age

Themes where the relationship is with oneself include but are not limited to:

  • coming of age           
  • overcoming addiction/OCD/trauma/Main Character’s own prejudice/ism           
  • grief           
  • introspection           
  • learning to love oneself          
  • learning to forgive (betrayal, framed by a friend/cop)        
  • coming out of one’s shell, perseverance and endurance (finding the mental strength to keep going/trying again when exhausted, injured and lost in the wilderness/snow storm, keeping up morale as a prisoner or war, clinging to hope when wrongfully convicted)

Characters who are both the protagonist and the antagonist usually grow to the point of becoming someone completely new because the obstacle they overcome is within themselves.

In conclusion, a character-driven story is not a plotless story, nor does it lack in plot, because the character growth is the plot. Consider Blindside, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Boy Meets World, To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, The Color Purple, or Forrest Gump. These stories have nothing but Plot.

So, if you’re a new author of character-driven stories, don’t be shy to showcase your characters in all their messy, dramatic glory, and don’t allow others to “edit” your query into a high-octane-something that it isn’t.

If you’re a veteran critique-giver of action-driven narratives and a query comes across your desk that focuses on the characters, don’t assume it’s plotless; consider that perhaps it is the characters who drive the story, and help the author make that internal conflict shine.


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