All stories have a plot, but not all plots are driven by the same thing. What’s the difference? The conflict.
Many character-driven novels have some action, and many action-driven novels have some character growth. But how does one know which is which?
A friend of mine told me this, and I’m passing it on to you (with permission).
Consider a story that starts with a character who wants something they can’t have. That’s the overarching story element that’s the last thing to be resolved. This is why so many romances end with a marriage, for instance.
Contrast that to a story which starts with a problem that MUST be solved—like a terrorist has taken control of a school and they have a kindergarten full of hostages.
That’s a great starting point. There are a few other methods that might help narrow this down, so let’s keep going.
Another way to identify if your piece is character or action-driven is to identify the main conflict. Is it internal, or external?
Consider this. One can build a home externally (with bricks, boards and nails), or one can build a home internally (with love and compassion). One can get the girl externally (physically retrieve her), or one can get the girl internally (win her heart). What main course of action *must* our hero(ine) accomplish by the end? Defeat/complete something external, or overcome/change/accept something internal?
Identifying the main conflict can be difficult for some (especially MG and YA novels where characters often grow as well as defeat a foe). So, if you’re unsure about which takes precedence (the growth or the defeat), try deciding whether the protagonist changes the story dramatically.
To do this, first exchange the protagonists with someone else who has a different *in my Liam Neeson voice* set of skills/color/gender/race/religion/confidence. If this significantly changes the conflict/issue our hero faces, then it’s likely a character-driven novel. If the conflict is relatively the same, then exchange the protagonist/locale. If this changes the storyline, then you likely have an action-driven novel.
Take Castaway, for example. The plot in this character-driven story is about an unprepared castaway who must battle depression and hopelessness and learn how to survive. Sure, a plane went down and he’s building stuff (subplot), but the main conflict is within himself. The bulk of the story shows him conquering his own shortcomings (learning how to make a fire, hunt, build, overcome loneliness and depression, find a will to survive etc). And then he gets off that island. *He* must change before his circumstance can.
Now, imagine if survivalist expert Bear Grylls were marooned on an island. What would the plot look like then? Definitely not the same because he knows how to survive in such an environment. So, I’d expect an external conflict in this story—maybe there are aliens on this island and they keep taking his rafts. Maybe the island is alive and absorbs human visitors to power itself. (Or, perhaps it’s simply a prescriptive nonfiction piece.)
Now, take an action-driven story—Jaws, for instance. If you replaced the protagonist with someone else, the conflict would be relatively the same—a shark is terrorizing the beach and someone must stop it. It doesn’t matter whether Jeremy Wade or Batman is the protagonist, the narrative will remain relatively the same, and the characters will likely do minimal growth because the battle is external. Since changing the protagonist in the story does not change the conflict, go a step further and change the shark to an alligator or a penguin, or set the story in a volcano. The storyline would be vastly different in the level of threat and the manner in which it is addressed.
This helps you narrow down the focus of the novel—are we watching a person or a relationship change, or are we watching a threat become neutralized?
In addition to identifying the main conflict and/or the impact of exchanging protagonists, you can also try to identify the antagonist. In a character-driven narrative, the focus of the story is usually a character changing himself or his relationships (internal conflict). In an action-driven narrative, the focus of the story is usually a character overcoming his physical surroundings (external conflict). Therefore, the antagonist of an action-driven novel is usually someone else (a bad guy, predatory animals, a live forest trying to kill MC, etc), whereas the antagonist in a character-driven novel is oftentimes (*but not always*) the protagonist, himself.
I’d expect character development (and maybe a bit of growth) in an action-driven narrative, and I’d expect some sort of action in a character-driven narrative, but the point in the distinction is the main focus. Determining the focus of the narrative can also help you decide whether it’s character or action-driven.
In conclusion, most stories have both action and character with the emphasis on one over the other. If the main point is to watch the protagonist grow and change in himself or his relationships, then we’ve likely got a character-driven story. If the main point is to watch the series of physical events unfold, then we’ve likely got an action-driven story.