Back to Writing: Event-driven plots vs. Character-driven plots

So, today, I’m beginning the outlining work on my next book as I wait for beta readers and editors to do their thing.  That being the case, plot is on my mind and it made me start thinking about the nature of plots in general.  Now, my musings are nowhere near comprehensive but, at least in the context of what I’m now working on, I pondered two different methods of plotting: event-driven versus character-driven.

The meanings of the terms are pretty straight-forward, if you’re not already familiar with them.  Event-driven plots are plots where the conflict is caused by specific events which occur outside of the actions of the characters.  A novel written around a natural disaster would be a perfect example.  Character-driven plots are plots where the actions of the characters generate the conflicts that move the story along.  A heist novel would be a great example of this.  Both types of plots have valid uses, so it comes down to deciding which is best for the story you want to tell.

At first blush, event-driven plots seem to showcase the central event as the ‘main character’.  This is true in some cases; there are books and films where something as esoteric as a deadly virus can have a fully realized character arc.  It can also be used to shine a light on variances at human character as a wide slice of character types react and change because of the event.  A series of plot-driving events could also be used as part of a character-driven plot to provide catalysts for character action that then spin off into a completely character-driven plot.

What’s important to realize is that event-driven plots aren’t event-driven if the ‘events’ in question are caused by the actions of another character (at least a character that is part of the novel’s cast).  A childhood murder (to steal a Batman moment) could be considered an ‘event’ if the murderer is not part of the plot from that point on, but if the murderer and his actions have a hand in the larger plot, then it could be simply another character-driven plot point.  Is it really important to the writing process to know the difference between these two approaches to plot?

I think so.  It mainly shows up in the style of the writing.  Event-driven writing, by it’s nature, introduces a certain immutability about the events that drive the plot.  The characters mold around the events instead of directly influencing them.  Again, this is great depending on the type of novel you are writing, but it can be horrible for other works.  The problem comes in when a writer intends to write, let’s say, a character-driven piece but then has every motivating event that occurs be an immutable thing that doesn’t derive from any character’s action.  Often times, this is simply a matter of clunky plotting: a certain character’s actions are treated as immutable events that never alter from the actions or reactions of other character’s.  In essence, those actions become ‘acts of God’ and there suddenly is not interplay between those actions and the reactions of the rest of the cast.  In a character-driven piece, this is suicide.

I suppose the ultimate point I’m making is that I’ve learned to try to be careful when plotting and writing a piece to keep in mind what you are trying to do and where you want the focus to lie.  It’s easy to make a few slips that turn the focus of something away from the intended target.  What do you think?  Do you consider how you plot something to be important in the execution of a piece?  Do you prefer to write based around events or around characters?  Let me know!

P.S. I’m always open for more beta readers.  If you want to get first crack at all of my current and future books, this is your chance!  Who can argue with free books, right?

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2 comments

    1. Interesting point.

      Thinking about it, I can certainly see it. As the events are set in stone, it’s very easy to fall into a trap of letting the setting and events overtake and control characterization.

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