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

Are ordinary people interesting?


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The Big Peat

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Further on the idea of it being a sliding scale that varies within a book - I'd say it is very common in Epic Fantasy to have *long* internal monologues, but also to feature lengthy stretches where the characters are simply reacting to the incredible events. SoIaF and WoT both spring to mind as obvious examples.
 

sknox

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I'm baffled by the OP. I would put forward Robert Silverberg's Downward to Earth, or Ted Sturgeon's More Than Human, or Sam Delaney's Dhalgren, and that's just off the top of my head. I have to stop myself from listing more. Solaris. Aw, that one slipped out.

Anyway, I see every sort of story, especially in SF. No so much in fantasy, which is a shame because there's at least as much room there for character-driven stories. Despite many forerunners, though, I'd argue that fantasy is the junior genre here. Plenty of time for more change.
 

Toby Frost

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The first thing that strikes me is that I’d regard both Dune and Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep as character-driven, whereas I wouldn’t see, say, Foundation in the same way. I get Jessica and Deckard’s motivations, in the same way that I get the motivations of the characters in Titus Groan and can see why they think and act the way that they do, even if I’d do something different in the same situation.

But then I’ve never really thought of SF as character or plot driven (although a lot of older SF is weak in terms of character) and, while critics can say what they like, I don’t really find the concept especially useful. I think the two easily blur into each other: in a situation where a king or space emperor can start wars as he wants, the character and the plot are surely much the same thing. Not only are the two hard to separate, I don’t really see what would be gained in trying to separate them.
 

Brian G Turner

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"Character driven/plot driven - what is SFF all about?"
I see "plot driven" as meaning that characters will do what the author wants, even if it makes no sense, while "character driven" means that the story unfolds due to the character's inner drives.

An easy example is when a protagonist needs to rescue his friend from the dungeon of the antagonist -

Plot-driven: the author has no idea how to get the protagonist there, so he has him knocked unconscious, only to have him wake up in the dungeon - remarkably, his friend is in the next cell!

Character-driven: the protagonist must use all his resourcefulness and wits, and face incredible danger to enter the dungeon. He manages to reach his friend's cell, but has been badly injured in the process.

Which one do you think is the more interesting to read?


I'm currently rewatching a select few episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation with the family, to prepare them for the new Star Trek: Picard series. Tonight we're watching the first season episode DataLore where Data discovers his "evil brother" Lore. Lore then switches places with Data without the other characters noticing. There's exposition about Data's history, but the plot drives the story, not the characters, who look stupid for not noticing the switch.

On Saturday we watched I, Borg, when the Enterprise beams up an injured borg to the Enterprise for medical treatment. This is the first time Picard has faced the borg since his assimilation during the two-part episodes Best of both worlds. Picard, driven by hate and anger, determined to turn this borg into a weapon against the borg collective. But despite his initial prejudices, Picard is forced to overcome them. There's exposition about individuality and rights, but it's a character-driven story which sees Picard struggle with his past, and ultimately reclaim his human values.

Which episode do you think stands out the most?


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.
The idea that plot-driven stories are capable of exposition that character-driven ones aren't I think is also a fallacy. Arthur C Clarke focused on exposition rather than character development in his stories, which was perhaps more acceptable 50+ years ago. Meanwhile George R R Martin writes very close character-driven stories that are filled with exposition.

You mentioned Dune, Bladerunner, and the Three-Body Problem as examples of plot-driven stories, but the first two are character driven: Jessica is in conflict over trying to protect her son against very real and immediate dangers while also trying to help him live up to the potential she sees in him - there's nothing really alien about that; Deckard has an emotional development arc in which he learns to stop seeing replicants as just machines and as accepts them as fundamentally human. I've not read the Cixin Liu, but I have read a lot of complaints about the lack of character development meaning that the book is not as well-received as it potentially could have been.


Really, I suspect this thread is just another one where an aspiring writer realizes they have underdeveloped characters in their story, but is hoping that big ideas will save it. I think I once started one like this. :)

However, IMO the bottom line is that great ideas alone generally don't make for an outstanding book, but great ideas with great characters potentially can. :)
 

Star-child

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I see "plot driven" as meaning that characters will do what the author wants, even if it makes no sense, while "character driven" means that the story unfolds due to the character's inner drives.
If that's the way you see it, then you agree that "plot driven" is pejorative. But it also means that you think the critics and scholars that use thise terms to describe structure don't know what they are talking about when they use Kindred as an example of both great character writing AND plot driven format.

Listing weak character writing that is also plot driven doesn't make all plot driven writing poor any more than bad character driven writing makes that a bad idea.


As far as I can tell, Iain M Banks' Use of Weapons is both an excellent character examination and is plot driven because it provides no direct access to the protagonist's thoughts or feelings. Those things are the point of the story, but only revealed through the telling of events.
 
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Mirannan

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IMHO this question depends very much on the fictional world in question.

"Ordinary" people in an ultratech world such as the Culture, Greg Bear's 22nd century Earth or most of the societies in Orion's Arm would likely have very different goals and drives from anyone on the Earth of today. (I was going to write "21st century Earth" but suddenly thought that the world of 2095 is likely to be very different from that of 2019.)

One can see the beginning of this. Social media has changed and is continuing to change society in ways that maybe future historians will be able to understand. And one can access much of the collective knowledge of humanity from a hand-held device, which is likely to change things as well. Augmented reality and AI are the two big agents of change coming up, followed by brain-computer links and greatly increased lifespan. And as for the post-scarcity environment made possible by nanotech...
 

Brian G Turner

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But it also means that you think the critics and scholars that use thise terms to describe structure don't know what they are talking about
Which scholars and critics are you talking about? You haven't exactly offered much in the way of definitions, sources, or citations, and the examples you originally argued as "plot driven" are demonstratively "character driven" by any normal use of the term.

You are also doing a good job of trying to misrepresent other people's opinions in your thread in order to justify your own entrenchment, which does not make for a very mature argument.

The question is, are you really concerned about the academic application of these terms, or are you simply struggling to write about emotionally engaged characters and trying to publicly argue that you don't need to try to? I'm simply asking, because you are obviously very passionate about this issue.
 

Brian G Turner

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Also, the title of your poll "Are ordinary people interesting?" is strange, because I would think most people would describe SFF as primarily about "ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances". The exception, of course, is if you are writing about superheros and aliens, who by definition are extraordinary. :)
 

The Big Peat

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Which scholars and critics are you talking about? You haven't exactly offered much in the way of definitions, sources, or citations, and the examples you originally argued as "plot driven" are demonstratively "character driven" by any normal use of the term.

You are also doing a good job of trying to misrepresent other people's opinions in your thread in order to justify your own entrenchment, which does not make for a very mature argument.

The question is, are you really concerned about the academic application of these terms, or are you simply struggling to write about emotionally engaged characters and trying to publicly argue that you don't need to try to? I'm simply asking, because you are obviously very passionate about this issue.
Tbf, if you search for character driven vs plot driven and look at the first links to come up, then you will find they pretty much all echo this

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

I'd never heard of it before, but it does look like this is actually the commonly accepted definition.

And while you can have arcs that are of different kinds in the same book, there will probably be a main arc that is fundamentally one of them.
 

tinkerdan

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There is something in the OP that is a definitively good question to ask.
Though like some others I'm a bit confused by the way that it is asked and presented.

We seem to be starting with an assumption that people want character driven fiction.
From that we ask whether they want normal people in fantastic fiction.

These are not two things that are necessarily married together and inseparable.

Good fiction, written well, is a combination of Plot, setting, character.

Science fiction is the What if that places ordinary people in a specific setting within a specific plot(idea) and demonstrating what might happen.

In this instance when we say ordinary people--we are looking toward anything from ordinary to someone with extraordinary talents that fit within the setting or world and the plot(following some sort of rules), that are relate-able to ordinary people. That is, there are motives that drive these characters that are identifiable. This doesn't necessarily rule out the strangeness of characters that are not human--however it is often dificult even for the best writer to not end up with some crossover especially where the character is a main character. However when done well, even if they are far from human they have some relate-able traits that the reader can learn through the narrative.

A writer would have to write exceptionally well to be able to write prose that is compelling enough to keep the readers interest in the circumstance where the character's behavior can't be explained or understood by an ordinary person; unless the writer is writing short shock fiction that is there just to get a shocked reaction.

However: I really don't think that that's the point I want to make here.

Good fiction--is a marriage of Plot, Setting, and Character.
Writing well is the result of writing all these elements well and in my meager 50 years of reading science fiction I think there is room for improvement.

When someone says they prefer stories that are character driven--they are likely complaining about some part of the formula that is not done well.

One of the usual good tests for good writing is to ask. Can we replace the main character and have the same story.
If the answer is yes; this could be a strong indicator that there is something wrong with the writing and the characterization. It is increasingly wrong when you realize you can replace Joe Normal with a cat. One of the greatest problems is that sometimes the main character seem to be rather flat-mono-dimensional beings.

Another test; can you put the characters and the plot in a different place and have the same story. This might indicate weaknesses in the setting.

The final test: and I think this one is just to verify that you really have a unique story or idea; Can you take this same plot and change the setting and characters and still have the same story. That might be an indication that your story is not as unique as you thought.

This is not to say this is bad because I've seen plenty of cases where this works just fine and has had great success--however most of these successes are because the author writes all of these elements well and is well aware of the individual weaknesses of Plot, Setting, and Character.

From there I would say that my hypothesis is that when people say they want more character driven fiction they are addressing the issue that what they are reading seems to be weakest in that area. And I would agree in respect to much hard science fiction[or attempt at such]some writer disconnect from character while obsessing with the science. Instead of actively involving the whole in the description they tend to write banks of passive info-dump that stretches across pages and disconnects from the characters and the reader. It is not a matter of not wanting the info-dump but a matter that the info-dump seriously disconnects the reader from the story.

If you have to have info-dump; try to find the best way to do it entertainingly and not at the expense of character development.

I'm presently reading something that would be a great example of what not to do.
Part of the problem is POV--the author decided on Omniscient--however they seem to have waffled even that.
It would appear one reason they went with Omniscient was that it allow the narrator to see things that first person or close third wouldn't be able to see. However they also seem prone to rubber-band in and out to something nearing close omniscient and then back out to objective Omniscient.

The greater problem though is that description of any kind is telescoped out and dumped in large quantities--which effectively means that the reader keeps leaving the story. This is both science and character description. Rather than organically getting the information it is all presented in telling with passive description of everything.

There's this thing--style and voice--that can be done with subjective Omniscience that sort of makes the narrator another character and with that the author can work with less telling and more show of how the characters feel about the technology being described and how they interact; instead of having this sort of divorce from character. Where when a new-important-character shows up you can insert pieces of description of that character rather than stop everything and describe the character in a single long paragraph of passive text only to jump back(glad we got that out of the way)now we can move on manner.

Some of this is all style choice; however whatever style chosen, writing well, writing as well as you can--should not be optional.
When it's not written well; readers start having all sorts of strange preferences come to mind.
 
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Margaret Note Spelling

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Focus on Character vs. Focus on Plot--One without much of the other will have to work extremely hard to make a good story. If there isn't a pleasing balance, then a book is always going to feel like it's lacking development somewhere, unless the working idea is so great that it justifies the lack of balance.

I've heard Jane Austen criticized for lack of plot, while her books deal a lot with the internal workings of the characters--meanwhile, something like Lord of the Rings takes more of a bird's-eye view of that sort of thing. I don't necessarily agree with the idea that Jane Austen lacks plot, but it's certainly more dependent upon the nuances of character than LotR. Both are pretty good books in their way. Neither neglects character or plot. But the focus is definitely different, based on the strengths of the different ideas they had.

So now I'm thinking of this as a seesaw, with one end being focus on plot and the other being focus on character. Ideas and development are what weight either side down towards the ground, giving us better focus on it. The fewer ideas, the higher up one side is, and the more ideas, the closer to ground the other side gets. Ordinarily, we're greedy, so what we start out wanting is both sides as close to the ground as possible--balance--but sometimes, if one of the ideas we've added to either side is so good that it makes that side our favorite, we don't mind if it's tilted slightly in its favor.

Maybe that's a weird illustration. But it helps me think about it.
 
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Star-child

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Which scholars and critics are you talking about? You haven't exactly offered much in the way of definitions, sources, or citations, and the examples you originally argued as "plot driven" are demonstratively "character driven" by any normal use of the term.
I left a link in post #14. Big Peat also mentions what I'm referencing.

You are also doing a good job of trying to misrepresent other people's opinions in your thread in order to justify your own entrenchment, which does not make for a very mature argument.
I think that might have started with post #2. Sorry to follow Jo's lead.

The question is, are you really concerned about the academic application of these terms, or are you simply struggling to write about emotionally engaged characters and trying to publicly argue that you don't need to try to? I'm simply asking, because you are obviously very passionate about this issue.
I didn't think I was passionate, and certainly find the reactions to my OP passionate. For instance; no I am not a foolish new writer lobbying for the right to avoid writing good characters. As you already noted, I have stated that several books with well illustrated characters are actually not in character driven novels because the definition I'm referring to places the illustration of their motivations in plot rather than introspection. And many of these kind of novels are totally about one character, but the fullness of their personality isn't revealed until the end of the story. In this way, they rarely "grow" as people, but are finally shown to be what they always were, despite never previously having the occasion to live up to.

Iain M Banks uses this format frequently. If you haven't read Use of Weapons, The Player of Games is probably more popular and the same in that the protagonist's thoughts are not available, and the reader is mislead at times about what kind of person he really is. But then the events in the book allow the protagonist to start making choices that better illustrate their character.

Which is why I started thinking about this - Character Driven novels have a certain expectation that the protagonist must change as a person, because we are given their thoughts from the beginning and those thoughts are only going to change IF the protagonist changes as well. However, many SFF/adventure/detective stories substitute the reader getting to know the illusive protagonist instead of the protagonist transforming. I think this is best illustrated by Indiana in Raiders of the Lost Ark, who is first shown to be thug, then womanizer. By film's end he hasn't really stopped being those things, but is shown to be loyal, selfless and brave on top of his less charming qualities.

And that got me thinking about showing vs. telling. Illustrating character's through their plot choices is showing, mind reading is telling. That seemed worth discussing.

Also, the title of your poll "Are ordinary people interesting?" is strange, because I would think most people would describe SFF as primarily about "ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances". The exception, of course, is if you are writing about superheros and aliens, who by definition are extraordinary. :)
I guess I would mostly disagree. SFF protagonists are rarely ordinary, and by virtue of the fantastical circumstances of their mise en scene, are starting out as uniquely unordinary people. Common SFF characters are messiahs, kings, wizards, geniuses, space captains, elite warriors, cyborgs, immortals, AIs, hackers, spies and con men. Anymen are few and far between, because those kind of people just aren't very useful when the Borg are attacking or you're invited to play Azad.

And one of the ways I think this comes up is in the depiction of fear and wonder. In (what I have been calling) Character Driven writing, extraordinary circumstances call for some sort emotional reaction, and fear is often used because it can be described viscerally and later referred to again. But what if your character doesn't have the fears or horizons of an ordinary person, and are wired more like an SAS trooper or cosmologist? And that leads us to one of the most famous SF movie lines: "What a piece of junk!". Luke Skywalker is not an ordinary person. Spaceships and armed combat are not unusual circumstances for him, and his sense of wonder and fear are nothing like an insurance salesman's from Milwaukee. Within the story, this is not aberrant behavior - Luke is not from Milwaukee, and Paul Atreides is from even further away. Their inner lives are very different from ours to the point that we don't really share many mental similarities. The poll reflects the fact that I expect the mental landscape of Frodo, Usal, Dave Bowman, Rick Deckard or the Mule to have nothing in common with me - they are effectively aliens that will earn their humanity via their efforts, not by simply sharing my "petty" insecurities.


But if you simply discard the definitions as used in the link I posted, then anything with a good character is "character driven", and we have no useful terms for the discussion that I am attempting about show vs tell characterization.
 
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Jo Zebedee

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blah - flags. So many flags.
I’d prefer it if you didn’t knock out commentary about me, thanks. Brian was responding to your posts - if he had wanted to respond to mine, I’m sure he would have done so.
 

Star-child

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I’d prefer it if you didn’t knock out commentary about me, thanks. Brian was responding to your posts - if he had wanted to respond to my tone, I’m sure he would have done so.
I'm sorry that the discussion of my conversation with you involved you.
 

BAYLOR

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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?
He's arguing for the sake of arguing JZ. That's all he's doing.
 

tinkerdan

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I think it's important to realize that not everyone agrees with each other.
e.g.

And, thus, not everyone agrees with the conclusion drawn here in the OP.

I'm not referring to people in this forum; but, rather to the above links given as examples.

One thing they do have in common is the lack of reference to ordinary vs extra-ordinary characters.

I think that in that respect there are two separate arguments that would be best to be left separate.
 

Star-child

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Why do you feel need to be so rude and condescending to everybody ?
Why is it that some people can be rude and condescending, but no one seems to notice or care?

Why is it that you feel entitled to attack me? Are your personal attacks privileged in some way?


Post a thread about writing structure and I get accused of all sorts of stuff from the first response on. It is just writing theory stuff, folks.
 

Star-child

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I think it's important to realize that not everyone agrees with each other.
e.g.

And, thus, not everyone agrees with the conclusion drawn here in the OP.

I'm not referring to people in this forum; but, rather to the above links given as examples.

One thing they do have in common is the lack of reference to ordinary vs extra-ordinary characters.

I think that in that respect there are two separate arguments that would be best to be left separate.
I would certainly agree that there is no one, true definition. I just don't think these terms exist to describe purely qualitative differences and exist for more useful reasons.


The ordinary/extraordinary thing mainly comes to play when the thoughts being offered are so bizarre that they don't have a function in building reader empathy with the character. When that happens they function more like exposition. I'm thinking mainly of Dune, where everyone is a wizard/ninja.
 
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