Which is best: Character- or plot-driven stories?

Generally, stories can be classified as either character- or plot-driven. One is not necessarily better than the other, though readers usually respond more positively to the former.

A character-driven story focuses on conflicts between the protagonist and antagonist that usually leads to a change in the hero’s personality or outlook. For example, in Homer’s The Iliad, the main character Achilles must choose between the fortune of home or the glory of heroic battle. He learns through the battles and sacrifices unfolding before him that heroic battle offers a greater reward – of immortality, as the story of his life will be remembered in all homes forever.

In contrast, a plot-driven story focuses on the protagonist merely overcoming obstacles but never needing to learn anything along the way in doing so. In large part, Homer’s The Odyssey, is plot-driven, as the epic’s protagonist, Odysseus, must find a way to return home when his ship is blown off course in a storm. Along the way, he battles several monsters and visits a variety of exotic locales.

While some genres – especially mysteries, romances, westerns and action-adventure – are known for being plot-driven, they need not necessarily be so. In fact, modern readers often rate character-driven novels in those genres as their favorites.

Indeed, the problem with most plot-driven stories is that the characters are wooden. Readers simply don’t relate to a two-dimensional, unbelievable protagonist. In addition, plot-driven often stories don’t ring true. That’s because the action occurs in the direction the author wants to take a story rather than arising from the protagonist’s motivations or goals; often, the hero could have made another choice that that would have prevented the action from even occurring.

A danger of character-driven stories is that they can become plot-less, a common (albeit often unfair) criticism of the literary genre. This occurs when stories appear to be more about naval-gazing and lack any interesting event. Typically the problem with such stories is that they lack any out-of-whack event to set the story in motion; that is, there’s no reason for the naval-gazing to occur, so the protagonist appears to be purely be engaging in a pity party.