Character driven/plot driven - what is SFF all about?

Are ordinary people interesting?


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Star-child

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Obviously, there is no right answer. A good love story set on the moon is definitely SF, even if the plot is entirely conventional otherwise. Good literature is wherever you find it, rather than being measured by the strength of its genre elements.

However... Why write SFF if you don't appreciate (love) the exposition and plot that makes something Fantasy or SF rather than simply historical fiction or adventure? Let's face facts - if you don't like exposition (info dumping when all goes wrong), it is not sensible to craft a tale that keeps having to inform the reader about how magic works or why an alien has seven mouths. That's what non-genre fiction already does well - tell stories where the world requires no explanation and can be assumed to be like the ones you are aware of already.

(There is a bridge between the two, of course: Write highly conventional SFF where all the speculative concepts are simply re-used from the conventions of the drama: Star Trek with hats, Rivendell with cats.)

As I review the great books and films that compel me in SFF, I would say very few are character driven in any normal sense. The thoughts, capabilities and motivations of Jessica Atreides are so different that of a 21st century person as to render her entirely alien. Rick Deckard has little discernible inner monologue that we can guess about. The characters of Three Body Problem exist more as figures described by historians. Yet these are all compelling works.

Are the internal kvetching and decision trees of ordinary human beings the bread and butter of SFF, or are regular people not up to the task of invading the Death Star? Do the super-humans that get sent to Jupiter (Saturn) on the Discovery have internal lives like yours? Or are they operating on a level that only a few people could really understand, and we are entertained in large part by their lack of normal humanity?


Perhaps the emphasis on character driven stories, in an effort to please more readers of conventional fiction, has missed the point of how speculative fiction delights. Not by giving us more to reflect on in our own lives, but by suggesting that the petty needs and motivations of real people aren't the best use of a genre that is based on wildly novel events.
 

Jo Zebedee

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I’ve been a spec reader all my life but remain a character led reader. Much have been doing it all wrong ;)

Seriously - character readers are not dumbing down sff. Spec fiction is a huge genre with lots of character led and exposition led for all of us (although that exposition can’t be in a character plot confuses heck out of me). It’s not a case of one being proper sff and one not. Both are of the genre and have their place.
 

The Big Peat

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If a book is asking me to pick between character, plot and ideas rather than giving me all three, then either it had better be awesome at what it does or its doing it wrong.

This might feel like a cheap answer that doesn't really answer the question but its the first answer I can think of. There's too many good books out to put up with ones that aren't giving me everything.
 

Star-child

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Something being not character driven doesnt mean there aren't well written characters. It means that their internal states don't explicity drive the action.

"Character driven" seems to often be used as a positive attribite, when it is merely an approach more akin to which POV the story is written in. "Plot driven" doesn't mean 2 dimensional characters or poor writing, but it has been inceeasingly been used in rhe pejorative. Which is unreasonable.
 

Jo Zebedee

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Seriously, no one said they were.
This kind of gave that vibe:

Perhaps the emphasis on character driven stories, in an effort to please more readers of conventional fiction, has missed the point of how speculative fiction delights.

It rather feels like spec fiction has to give up some of its core to please readers less inclined to concepts.
 

Dragonlady

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I"m very much character driven, I love social history and would love more books about everyday people in fantasy worlds. (This is what I'm attempting to write at the moment). Whilst the plot does a lot of lifting in eg Harry Potter and Robin Hobb character drives many events too.
 

HareBrain

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the petty needs and motivations of real people aren't the best use of a genre that is based on wildly novel events.
To some extent I agree with this. One of the joys of what's often called lit-fic is when a gifted writer surgically dissects some aspect of the reader's own life and shows them something very familiar and recognisable in a new way. This becomes less possible the further the story-world gets from the reader's own, and identification becomes less direct and more by analogy (I guess). That doesn't mean SFF shouldn't be character-driven, just that the characters tend to become more obviously colourful rather than ordinary.
 

Abernovo

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petty needs and motivations of real people
But these are the things which drive everyday life, even if they may seem alien. I want to read about them. Sorry, HB! ;)

TANSTAAFL, the oft-quoted Heinlein philosophy, is rooted in needs and motivations -- you pay for the oxygen you breathe in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The motivation to see new horizons is one of the central concepts of science fiction. Ursula Le Guin was the queen of big concepts, but the characters make the stories for me.

One of my favourite authors at the minute is Becky Chambers, who writes brilliant space opera, imagining what life in an interstellar human diaspora might actually be like, by examining the minutiae of society. I must also admit to liking Jo's fiction, which is also character-driven, but from a very different perspective.

Plot (i.e. events occurring) may drive characters to react, but characters drive the plot through their actions. The two are pretty much inseparable unless you only want to read a report of events. And, it's only info-dumping when the info is shovelled into one small patch; if it's dutifully seeded every few paces, and allowed to grow, you have a rich field of information by the end of the narrative.

At the end of the day, there's room on the shelves for lots of different books, which inspire diverse numbers of people. I don't think it's possible (or helpful) to say SFF should be this, but not that.
 

Margaret Note Spelling

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Something being not character driven doesnt mean there aren't well written characters. It means that their internal states don't explicity drive the action.
I agree, in part; I don't think plots vs. characters is really where we should be placing our dichotomy. It's just going to be a difference in the story's focus, external changes or internal changes, to the perspective character.

The poll, though, doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Are ordinary people interesting? How are you defining ordinary people? Either way, the two options seem a bit extreme. And specific.
 
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Star-child

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It rather feels like spec fiction has to give up some of its core to please readers less inclined to concepts.
Plot driven fiction is not about concepts. It is about telling a story about people through events. Character driven is when you tell a story about people through their inner workings. One is not a more realistic study of people than the other. One just provides different access than the other to the inner workings of those characters - it is just a baseless assertion that telling the reader what the protagonist is thinking is superior to showing only the choices they make.

Anyone who hasn't seen Miller's Crossing should - possibly the Cohen brothers' finest film. The protagonist clearly has an idea what he wants, what is important to him and what he's willing to do to get it. The film is almost entirely a character sketch of the protagonist, yet he never utters an indication of his thoughts.

Some folks will want to claim Miller's Crossing character driven, since it is entirely about one man and the plot doesn't describe a clear goal oriented arc. However, everything is shown through events rather than emotions, inner dialogue or even utterances. At the end we strongly sympathise with him, are invested, but only know what we do because of the observation of events. It is a plot driven story about a character.

The poll, though, doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Are ordinary people interesting? How are you defining ordinary people? Either way, the two options seem a bit extreme. And specific.
The poll is a reference to books like Dune, that reveal much about the thoughts and aspirations of the characters, but those characters are not really human in that their desires, fears and concerns are on different scale than ours. We have nothing in common with them, so their inner workings are not "character" in any sort of normal sense, but are more exposition of the action.
 
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Jo Zebedee

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But character driven isn’t only when you tell a story about people through their inner workings - it’s also about how you use character perspective to drive plot elements. You seem very happy to apply a wide definition to one and a narrow to the other. Inner bias perhaps...?
 

Star-child

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So are we talking ordinary human as opposed to, say, alien?
Ordinary human vs. Spider-Man. Characters in SFF are not ordinary people - their backgrounds, problems and abilities are of a type and scale that have no relation to your or my life.

But character driven isn’t only when you tell a story about people through their inner workings - it’s also about how you use character perspective to drive plot elements. You seem very happy to apply a wide definition to one and a narrow to the other. Inner bias perhaps...?
Character perspective doesn't drive plot elements, unless the plot takes place only in a character's head.

You seem very happy to give credit to any sort of fiction that features character agency to "character driven fiction", but all fiction is about the motivated choices people make. The difference is only really what access the reader/viewer is given and if that access illustrates a person that we can understand.

To use your definition, every book about people that illustrates the characters well is somehow not "plot driven", but that's just another way of saying anything that isn't character driven is poor. But I'm pretty sure those terms don't exist just to allow another way of insulting someone's writing. They are descriptions of approaches and the use of text throughout the story.
 

Jo Zebedee

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Whoah... what a lot of putting words in my mouth. Where on Earth have I insulted anyone’s writing?

I haven’t mentioned what I think plot driven is or isn’t... I certainly don’t think it is poor - and I read stuff that isn’t character driven. Also I don’t see a character story as thereby leading to lacking plot development. I see the two as mutually supporting. Why wouldn’t they be?

Also you missed my entire take on character stories. You can use character perspective to showcase your plot and enhance both.

Plot is a mechanism of a story. Characters are a mechanism too. There is absolutely no need to sacrifice one for the other. Why are you so polar about them?
 

Star-child

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Whoah... what a lot of putting words in my mouth. Where on Earth have I insulted anyone’s writing?

I haven’t mentioned what I think plot driven is or isn’t... I certainly don’t think it is poor - and I read stuff that isn’t character driven. Also I don’t see a character story as thereby leading to lacking plot development. I see the two as mutually supporting. Why wouldn’t they be?

Also you missed my entire take on character stories. You can use character perspective to showcase your plot and enhance both.

Plot is a mechanism of a story. Characters are a mechanism too. There is absolutely no need to sacrifice one for the other. Why are you so polar about them?
You appear to use "character driven" not as a description of the structure of the text but as a compliment to the level of character illustration. The flip side to using it as a compliment is that it implies a deficiency if a story is not described as "character driven".

But if the story is written from something like a closed third without dialogue about motivations and feelings, it isn't character driven - no matter how well the characters are written. When we come to understand the characters through their actions, that is plot at work.

Either this is a dichotomy between two different approaches, or it is a vague compliment/aspersion given to only one of the two. If it is the latter, it isn't really a useful term other than as book jacket fluff.

This article explains this with the Kindred example. Character-Driven Vs. Plot Driven: Which is Best | NY Book Editors
 

Jo Zebedee

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Implies is a hard word to tie down... Do I see a character driven story as better than another? No: although I have a preference as reader, I don’t have a problem with a plot driven approach either. (And am familiar with the definitions)

i like novels that balance both. Adrian Tchaikovsky, Chris Beckett and Ian McDonald all come to mind.to present this as a dichotomy does a disservice to the genre - and then we’re right back at my first post...
 

Star-child

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Implies is a hard word to tie down... Do I see a character driven story as better than another? No: although I have a preference as reader, I don’t have a problem with a plot driven approach either. (And am familiar with the definitions)

i like novels that balance both. Adrian Tchaikovsky, Chris Beckett and Ian McDonald all come to mind.to present this as a dichotomy does a disservice to the genre - and then we’re right back at my first post...
It isn't a dichotomy that I created - literary critics seem to see it as a choice about what information is offered in the text. You saying it is a disservice is like saying that claiming 1st and 3rd person being different voices is a disservice. "Disservice" also implies that there is some sort of pecking order.
 

The Big Peat

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The thing is, is that works with a good level of character illustration often end up being in part character driven anyway, because the level of depth means we do get to see some of why and how the characters make the decisions they do. Just like character driven books will often end up plot driven for at least part of it. As that NY Book Editors article says - they're only sorta binary and the best writers balance their style. Maybe when you excavate the whole building you find out which type the foundation stone is made out of, but a lot of them blend the two enough that there'll be arguments for both.

Which I guess takes me back to my original post - if a story doesn't have elements and moments of both, I'm probably not interested unless its amazing. I have enough books that flit between moments where the characters drive/are driven by the plot and external events, and moments where it slows down and becomes about the internal process, that I don't feel the need to compromise.

Maybe that's because for me, the joy of Fantasy is taking these incredible things and events and seeing how people would react to it. Not enough character-driven stuff, I don't get how they'd react. Not enough plot-driven stuff, and the events aren't incredible enough.
 

Margaret Note Spelling

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Now I'm curious about films. Since we never get to see anyone's inner thoughts, are they all plot-driven, by that definition?

As for the article--"King died, queen died of grief" includes major characterization of the queen and, by contrast to "the king died and then the queen died" as not being plot, it's implied that the "plot" is in fact mostly based on the queen's internal motivations--e.g., her state of grief.

Long story short, I don't think you can have plot without character. (No action without motivation.) Nor does anyone's internal character ever mean anything without interaction with the external environment. But there will often be a difference in a particular book's focus. Just because a book focuses on what objectively happened, rather than the subjective reason why it happened, doesn't mean that the subjective reasons didn't exist. They're simply taken for granted in that instance, because they're not unusual enough to make the author spend the space on them. You don't always need to describe a character's fear as they run from an alien monster. Or their protective anger as they defend a baby from the same monster. Show, don't tell, right? It's there anyhow.

The difference is not, then, in which of the two drives the events of the story. The difference is in what the book is primarily examining--motivations or actions? And that can be done either by showing or telling, depending on what the author is intending to say with the book. Different people will prefer different focuses. But neither of the two makes much sense on its own.

This seems to me to be a sliding scale of focus. Like a sliding scale of mystery. It can even change within a single book. It's not a dichotomy, since neither end of the scale truly exists without the other. But there is a difference in focus there, which becomes a thing of personal preference. Just because one end is focused on within a story doesn't mean that the other end suffers, or fails. It can simply be less what that particular story is meant to be about.
 
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