Thursday, March 4, 2010

Character Based vs. Plot Based Stories

No doubt, you’ve heard of character based stories and plot based stories, but do you know the difference between a character based story and a plot based story? I get the impression that there is some ambiguity about the subject among writers, as is evidenced by the comment made by one reader to Rachelle Gardner’s blog, asking for a discussion of plot-driven stories versus character-driven stories. I don’t know if Rachelle will eventually address the comment on her blog. If she does, she may disagree with me, but here are my thoughts on the subject.

One way to look at the difference is that Character Based stories are about how interesting characters handle ordinary situations. Conversely, Plot Based stories are about how ordinary people handle extraordinary circumstances. That may seem simplistic, but it isn’t so far off. You may be wondering about stories involving interesting characters in extraordinary circumstances and ordinary people in ordinary situations. These stories almost always fall flat. We want our characters to be fish out of water as much as possible. Placing the extraordinary with the extraordinary and the ordinary with the ordinary doesn’t prevent us from telling a story, but it certainly doesn’t help.

Interesting Characters in Ordinary Situations

Superman is an interesting character. He’s "faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound." He’s the kind of guy that you would want to go shake his hand if he came into the room. He does fascinating things, but when we look at the stories told about him, it isn’t the stories of him overpowering the most powerful weapons that draw us in and hold us. The most interesting thing about the Superman stories are his relationship with Lois and his other friends. Superman is great, but Clark Kent’s struggle to maintain an ordinary life is what makes the story truly interesting.

Monk is another interesting character. He has an extraordinary ability to see things that other people miss. While we want to see him solve the crime, what made the show particularly interesting was that he was afraid of everything. Something as ordinary as walking down the street becomes an adventure. We don’t care to see him in a truly dangerous situation—anyone would be afraid of that—but we want to see how he handles everyday life because he handles it so differently than we would expect.

Ordinary Characters in Extraordinary Circumstances

Dorothy from Kansas with her little dog Toto has got to be one of the most ordinary of characters we can imagine. Had she stayed in Kansas, we wouldn’t have given her a second thought. There are so many people who have lived a similar life. Her story only becomes interesting when she visits the Land of Oz.

Where We Start

We sometimes get the impression that Character Based stories and Plot Based stories are a matter of the preferences of the writer. One writer likes to start with the characters while another likes to start with the plot. There may be some truth to that, but I think it is more about the source of inspiration. As a writer, I may see someone and because I am fascinated by this person, I try to think of what kind of story I might put him in. On the other hand, I might think of a fascinating story and wonder what kind of characters might be involved.

Suppose you were tasked with writing a story about an ordinary girl who lives with her step-mother and two step-sisters. We could have her run away and find a place in the forest to live, but it wouldn’t make much of a story because the problem is solved. She has moved to better living conditions and life is good. Instead, we introduce a prince who is looking for a bride. We forbid her to go to the ball and we give her a fairy godmother who will give her a way to go—the ordinary in the extraordinary.

Suppose we want a story about a beautiful princess who also has to deal with a wicked step-mother. We could send her off to live in her uncle’s palace in a far country, but that would be boring. Instead, we send her out to live with dwarves in the forest. Her step-mother discovers her hiding place and attempts to kill her with the most ordinary of things, an apple. After sleeping in a glass case for a long time, a prince kisses her and carries her off to live in his palace—the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Where the Work Is

In a character based story, the work is in creating the characters. Not everyone is interesting, so we have to spend some time thinking about what will draw our readers to the character. But once we figure out how the character will handle any given situation, it gets easier. The plot isn’t as important. Send Superman to the supermarket and he ends up stopping a car before it runs down an old lady with a shopping cart, but he has to do it without the people he is with discovering that Clark Kent is Superman.

For the plot based story, we don’t have to pay as much attention to the characters because they are like us. They are ordinary, average Joes. If you were to pull Oliver Twist out of the Dickens’ novel and send him to Oz, he would handle the situation very much like Dorothy did, though he might not be as anxious to go home. To make these stories worth telling, we must turn our attention to the circumstances of the story. These characters experience something that doesn’t happen to most people, but they are us and we experience these things vicariously.

In Closing

If you aren’t sure whether a story is character based or plot based, look at what happens and the characters involved. If exciting things happen to ordinary people, it is plot based and the focus is on the action. If interesting people do ordinary things, it is character based and the focus should be more on the personal relationships and internal conflict. If the two are intertwined and you can’t tell, then something is wrong and the story will be weak.