Saturday, March 15, 2014

Wrap up from the facebook event, how to create understanding for your characters and a little bit more on reflection characters

...and if that's not a long title, I don't know what is. It's amazing sometimes how life will just be going along, and all of a sudden there's something like a clog in the whirlpool of everyday events. I'm slowly getting myself unclogged, but if somebody somewhere made a power snake for busting through backlogs, I'd be all over it.

The Facebook event was great!! I know I sound a little gushy, but it was sort of a cross between a really good workshop chat and an open house. It went so fast it surprised me to look up and find four hours had passed. We talked about making your heroine sympathetic (or not)...

I have a question Jodi. And thanks for taking them. I'm at the climatic Dark Moment in my wip. The heroine is a victim of child molestation. She ran away from home and is now 28. She's lived her life by the work hard play hard rule and take no hangers on. To her, any man presents a threat to her self-preservation so she prefers to luv em and leave em. She's met the hero who has his own emotional hang ups but sees something special in her and sticks around. The molester appears after ten years and is deranged enough to think he and heroine can make it as an item. She refuses him and tells him to get lost. He does, temporarily, but resurfaces after she's finally got her life together, her new business and an exclusive relationship w/ hero. But molestor resurfaces w/ a bang and tries to do just that with her ---by force. She's clever enough to dial hero on speed dial who figures it out and calls 911. All is well or so hero thinks after he saves the day but something breaks inside heroine, she feel unworthy, her fears come back w/ a vengence and she's disgusted with herself thinking , as she did as a child, that she did something to cause the attack & is not good for hero. She takes off for parts unknown closing her new business for the holidays. My question, sorry if it took so long, is how can create the right rationale for the heroine to not make her appear heartless, inconsiderate to the hero who'd saved her. I need make her sympathetic when she leaves without notice.

Thanks for asking! Going to be blunt here so forgive me, okay? Don’t get hung up on making the heroine sympathetic. Make her understandable. From reading your synopsis, it looks like the assault is part of the heroine’s arc. It’s…you’re right, her black moment. The moment when her motivation to heal herself and be with the hero runs right into her motivation to curl up in a ball and listen to all those people who say people who are molested and abused, invite their abuse. Look at your heroine’s focal motivation for the story she’s in? She ran away from home. Why? To escape, yes. But also to give the part of her that motivated her escape a chance to grow. She’s running from the motivation to sit down, shut up and just take it, because there’s something in her that is making her abuser abuse her—she’s running from being a headjob. “Toward” the goal her driving motivation wants for her—a chance to heal, stop the pain and be normal, because deep down inside, she “doesn’t” believe all the brainwashing and she’s fighting it.

When your story opens, that motivation is in control. She is “always” the one in charge of a relationship. The hero adds to that motivation (creates a layer) that adds the words, “with the hero”. Because she’s starting to open to love. He is consistent. And I’m sure no matter how much she tests him, he never leaves. And the great thing about this is that her motivation (her original motivation) is telling her that it’s all fake. How can he love/like/care for her when there’s “something wrong with her” (even though her motivation is telling her there’s nothing wrong with her, her first motivation is always there, telling her (subconsciously) there is)?? The more she pushes and the more he pushes back, convincing her that he won’t leave, that nothing is wrong with her. The stronger this part grows>>  All is well or so hero thinks after he saves the day but something breaks inside heroine, she feel unworthy, her fears come back w/ a vengence and she's disgusted with herself thinking , as she did as a child, that she did something to cause the attack & is not good for hero.

By the end of her tests, she’s probably seriously unlikable, because what’s the point if she moves from being likable to being likable? She just needs to have signs of change. Have you ever had a really strict teacher or boss? They push you and push you, and make life hell. Then one day, after a really hard task, you look up—and they give you a smile or a firm nod and you know—this as a test, and you passed it?

He knows what’s at stake. She’s testing him to see if she can lower her shields with him. And…each time he passes a harder test, her shields need to go down more. Let your reader see how wounded she is on the inside and how difficult it is for her to reach out.

I would suggest that she’s not leaving because she’s not good for the hero, but because she’s afraid (after daring to open up and hope/love) that this will be the straw that broke the camels back and sends him away. And that…will kill her. 

Her earlier motivation (that something is wrong with her, all that conditioning, all those beliefs) comes back, like you said, with a vengeance. Something broke in her, something is telling her this is what will make the hero walk away from her, because he can finally see it.

She doesn’t leave for him. She leaves for herself. She leaves because she’s afraid that if he rejects her, her original (child) motivation will be right. There is something wrong with her. And that everything she was starting to feel with her and him toward her was fake, just when she was just starting to believe her childhood motivation was wrong. She leaves because she’s in so much pain and conflict, she can’t stay.

It’s your job to let people see the shields go down and what life has done to her, and what the chance of being with the hero is doing to heal her. And then—you take it all away.

And your readers won’t say, wtf????? When she leaves, they’ll cry right along with her, even if she smashes all the mirrors and tears up his picture before she goes, because…they’ll understand.

And how to use multiple villains as aspects of an all encompassing conceptual villain... (with a little help with an old post on reflections and a few thoughts from The Big Sleep)

Hi Nick, sorry to take so long getting back to you. I wanted to some time to think about your question  (I always think the best villains have a character arc too... my thriller has multiple villains (all part of one overarching conceptual villain) and it doesn't seem like they can have an arc (not even darker)... thoughts?)

This was a toughie. Basically what you’re looking for is called a reflection character. Hague says a reflection character is someone that “reflects” something about the protagonist and supports them in their quest. In a lot of ways I think that’s true, although Hague uses the word “support” in a very literal sense, and I think the usage is broader. A better way to say it would be to say the reflection character does what he or she needs to do to get the protagonist moving through his arc in the right direction. Even if the reflection doesn’t do anything themselves or is actively against the hero.

In Casablanca, Lazslo is Rick’s reflection. The guy Rick would have been if everything had worked out in his life. Lazslo doesn’t do much. He shows up, has a past and a potentially noble future—he encourages people to stand up for what they believe in, and sings the French National anthem. He also shows Rick two things Rick needs to know. 1. He loves Ilsa. 2. He values her safety more than his continuing fight against the Nazis.

In other words, Lazslo is very much a hero in the old-school, Dudley Do-Right sense. Good, kind, honorable, self-sacrificing, and the leader the resistance so desperately needs. To make him even better, he has a beautiful wife, who when push came to shove left Rick once she discovered Lazslo was still alive. Lazslo “reflects” all the good qualities dormant in Rick. A really strong transformational arc can be even stronger with a good reflection character to show your reader the potential in your hero. 

Reflection characters can also be used to reflect qualities (as in your multiple villains) and life situations or fears, and a good example of that would be a fear reflection.

What is your character afraid of?

Maybe your character comes from a background of domestic abuse, and has “fixer” tendencies. He wants to fix things and make them better, or protect others in his care. Maybe—because of his own abuse, or factors outside his control—he’s afraid of not being there, or being unable to help someone when they desperately need him. Maybe he has a mother or sisters, or a little brother who is being abused and puts himself in harm’s way and takes the abuse on himself—but what if one day he isn’t there and his mom and little brother are killed? 

A fear reflection would “embody” everything your hero is afraid of. All the guilt that he couldn’t be there, the fear he can’t protect his only remaining sister, and maybe—a very deep, very subconscious fear that he comes from the same genetic stock and might have abusive tendencies of his own. Therapy is a fairly recent thing, and even today people don’t always have access. Maybe he escapes and takes his little sister. That makes his sister the fear reflection. The one person who makes the hero’s fear real.

Fear for his sister, love for his sister—terror if anything looks like it might hurt her, and a desperate need to make sure his sister survives and lives happily ever after.

There are so many emotions and situations tied up in our feelings, and in a character-driven story sometimes you don’t want to spend a lot of time digging into internals. Using someone else as a fear (or any kind of) reflection (whether it’s fear, anger, love, etc) would help to layer change, show progress, and emphasize the struggles your character is going through.

To have your character sitting, thinking about how he’s been having these “feelings” of wanting to hurt someone when he’s angry might not work, depending on your story, “but” showing your character sitting around a campfire, rubbing his cold hands, staring at his sister—hating her, wanting to hurt her for one bright red moment, brings it all home in a way that connects on a visceral level.

Maybe the reflection gets sick, or hurt—and your hero can’t prevent it. Love, pain, and the fear he’s going to lose another person he loves is all there in the way his hands shake making the thin watery soup that’s all they can afford. Subtext yes--but also a great way to show your character's arc.

How does this work in a story with multiple villains?

Every character (at the start of their arc) starts out with focal motivation (a way to get a handle on the character). I’ve always called it a core event, because it’s usually an event that encapsulates the emotional state of the protag at the start of the story. There’s a lot of stuff going on—conflict and motivation-wise. Maybe your hero has anger, pain, frustration and determination going on, along with a healthy helping of fear, self-doubt and cynicism. Each of those emotional states is a “facet” of your character. In a movie/book like Chandler’s Big Sleep, there is no arc. Marlowe doesn’t change. What changes is the facet (of Marlowe) that we’re looking at. Need, greed, lust, cynicism, admiration. Each facet that’s revealed pushes a part of the plot. It’s less of a movement “along” the arc, than an exploration of a point “on” the arc.

Your protag has an arc, but I’d like to suggest each villain is a reflection of one of the protag’s less admirable facets, and a visible representation of the issues he needs to overcome to reach his goal. That doesn’t mean each villain is one-note, just that the most memorable part of each villain would visibly address an issue (like a proud peacock of a guy whose cockiness is his downfall. Something that would address the protag’s refusal to ask for help). To defeat him, the protag could bring in a partner, ask for help from an old friend, break into someone’s home, find them there and ask them to help him, the variations are endless. You can roll some issues together, focus on them one at a time, pump up some villains to make it screamingly hard to defeat them, or make them so easy the hero will be wondering what the big deal was.

And I rambled, so quick summary?

The villains don’t have arcs, they simply layer the protag’s arc by exploring facets of his character. But…with a little effort? I’d also suggest that you can have the villains create an overreaching arc, using different villains to stand in for movement on the villain concept's conceptual arc.

It was a really good morning. :)

Friday, March 7, 2014

The Transformational Character Arc Explained in Five Easy Spiderman Clips

Five masterful scenes from Sam Raimi, the same guy who brought you Evil Dead, Xena, Warrior Princess, Hercules, Spiderman, The Grudge, Spartacus Blood and Sand, and American Gothic

The inciting incident or what gets this particular story going

Peter's conflict:
Peter is changing and he’s angry that his Uncle Ben is giving him a lecture on responsibility. They’re not talking about the same thing, because Uncle Ben doesn’t know about the bite. But Peter does—and he’s fighting his subconscious motivation (the result of his upbringing) to listen, grow up and take responsibility for his actions.

Later, when Peter is ripped off by a shady wrestling promoter, he stands aside while the man is robbed, and during the getaway his uncle is killed

>>this is the climax that pushes Peter to the breaking point

It's all his fault. He had great power and great responsibility...and he dropped the ball. His actions lead to the death of the man he loved like a father. And it tears him to shreds.

Peter finally changes and takes action, telling Mary Jane he doesn’t love her (in order to protect her), and walks away. Into his destiny as Spiderman.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Come talk to me and enter a drawing for a free four hour block of developmental edits 2/28

I'm in this sale. It's my very first group sale, and I was (and still am) a little freaked out. Bryan has got to be the most gung-ho detail-oriented organizer I've ever had the pleasure to meet, which fits, since he does books on writing prompts. And, I don't. I've always wanted to be once of those writers with a tidy wooden desk, fancy green lamp and nice mahogany bookcase. The bookcase...well, one day I'll get one in IKEA mahogany, but the tidy desk escapes me. When I'm working, I have drifts of paper so high they stratify. Phone numbers, notes, candy wrappers and water rings. I'm lucky I don't have bugs because three days into a project I've got plates piled on my computer like I'm having a garage sale.

Today (Friday the 28th), in addition to my first sale (may it be the first of many) I'm also holding my first giveaway. It'd be great if you swung over and liked my "Hi! I'm Jodi" status on FB (you might have to scroll looking for it, I don't have anything direct yet although I'll try to get the link fixed once I do), but...yeah, well. I fought FB for years and I know what it's like to "not" have a facebook account.

Which means if you leave a comment on my blog, you'll also be entered into my contest. I'm giving away a free four hour block of developmental/content edits, which you can use for yourself, give to a friend or giveaway in your own contest (must be used by RWA nationals). Four hours is a decent chunk of time and I can do a partial, show you how to fix whatever an editor wants you to fix (from a request and revision letter, although I'd have to see the letter), tidy up a project you sold on proposal (this doesn't mean full-blown track changed edits, but a nice solid editorial letter), or just fix something that feels off. Maybe people say your heroine is unlikeable, or your hero has all the motivation of a turnip--I'm there for you.

Or if you just want to talk? I'm here from 6-11 PST and 9-1 EST. I have no problem helping you trouble shoot your wip. And it's a lot easier to do here, rather than in a FB status.

Oh! And I almost forgot I had a picture. It's pretty and shiny, and I'm having this incredible urge to frame it. *sniffle*

Why yes--I "like" my foot in my mouth. The perils of backstory in real life

Do you have have that feeling like--oh, you're so passionate about something that it runs out of your mouth like uncontrollable word diarrhea when people trigger your hot button? And then it's too late because, yeah, there's a quote function and you can't edit other people's posts? *sigh* I do that all the time although I try not to.

I'm fortunate enough to have a friend who tells me the things I say aren't all that horrible and people will get on with their lives, regardless of whether I share my opinion,'s all a matter of backstory. Mine, theirs, other peoples.

I post things because some thing in my backstory drove me to react to something another person said (God, I hope politely and eloquently) and they react because of something in their backstory (which lead to the first comment) which is making them react to "my" comment, and it goes around in circles, with every poster reacting to our reactions depending on their particular backstory.

Decades ago, back in the days when I used to be a bookseller I remember talking to this famous regency writer, you know--picking their brain because I really wanted to be a writer back in the days when word processors were standard equipment, and I said, "Who are your favorite writers?" and she said, "I don't have any. I don't read."

And I was like--what?? And she went on to tell me she was a writer, she'd stopped reading years ago because she just didn't have the time. Looking back on it, I remember going through a period where I couldn't read because my internal editor wouldn't stop dissecting plots and stuff, but there's nothing I like more than falling into a book so good it makes me stop everything. The great thing (and the bad thing) about kindle is that I can buy a series one after the other until I'm done, and over the last few months, I've done that three times. I'm also fortunate that reading helps with my job, since I need to stay on top of trends and styles, but I'd do it regardless. I could tell at a glance which posters still read, which ones don't and which ones still have that 360 view even though the whole thread wasn't about whether you were a reader.

At my very first RWA conference, I had the displeasure of meeting one of my favorite writers. "Wow!" I said, going up to her (because I really wanted to tell her how much I enjoyed her books) "----! OMG, I LOVE your books!" I was totally fangirling her, and she said, "There, there (I kid you not! That's "exactly" what she said), don't worry. One day you too can be just like me." She patted her bouffant hair, straightened her jewelry and walked right around me, and when I got home--I threw out her books.

All she had to do was say "Thank you." Thank you for being a reader, thank you for being a fan. Thank you for being the reason I have all this heavy gold jewelry and can sit around at conferences telling other people how to write. I hope I am never like her.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Feel free to say I told you so

I unpublished Short Stories. It's my bane and Waterloo all rolled into one. I was fortunate--very fortunate, to be contacted a month or so ago by a woman looking for a review copy. I'd started to have this inkling that Shorts wasn't all I thought it was (the workshop should have given me a clue, lol)  and sent her copies of both craft books.

On one hand, I was kind of iffy about ES because it has typos. Not an overwhelming number, but enough to make me wince uncomfortably. It also has highlighters, and I'm greedy. The first time I re-read ES looking for typos, I was like..."People highlighted this??" And I got all teary. At which point I realized a kindle craft of writing truth; craft books have more typos than any other kind of writing (something I've noticed reading reviews). It's like the internal line editor checks out the minute Word turns on. But the reason craft books don't  get revised is because the people who wrote them don't want to lose their highlights.
Anyway, the woman was kind enough to send me a note telling me the reason Shorts wasn't doing well was because it lacked examples like ES *headdesk*

And I was like OM freaking GOD!!!


She didn't say, btw get your structural act together and fix that too, but I am. I don't know what it says about me that it took four years to figure out the actual useable structure of a short, but at this's coming in clearly. Once I upload it again (a week or so), I'll tell Amazon and it should be available for download at no additional cost.

I suspect I was too close. Feel free to say I told you so :)

Monday, February 17, 2014

Come talk to me 2/28

This is not a promo post, although it kind of looks like a promo post. I don't have as much time as I'd like anymore to just talk and troubleshoot, so it's sort of my equivalent of a free mini workshop (with others! Whether they think of it that way or not, I dunno. But I do, lol). When I was growing up my mom told me to eat oranges during the Lunar New Year in the hopes it'd bring me luck and tell you--I've been stuffing myself with oranges for years now. I'm not sure whether luck in excess is a good thing or a bad thing, but it's starting to spill out across my life and I'm sincerely grateful.

This randomly weird thing happened the other day when this guy named Bryan showed up in my inbox. "Come do a sale with us," he said. And I was like *blink*. I love what I do and most of the time (God, it's always those few times that don't work well that stick in your brain and not all the other times when it just sings) it's a pure pleasure to walk into a workshop and geek out. But these guys--whoa, these guys have been doing it for the backside of forever and they have muscle.

After panicking I sort of edged back into the email and said, "Sure." You can't really font words in subscript in an email, so it came out sort of confident, and we went from there. For one day (on the 28th) we're going to be doing a sale (every book for .99 cents) and manning the FB page, so people who'd like some free advice or help with a thorny problem can talk to their person of choice. You don't have to buy my book (or anybody's book), but I'd sure appreciate it if you'd stop by and say hello. Bring me the gift of a question if you have one, get an answer (because gift exchange is where it's at) and if you don't like facebook or don't have an account, just drop by my blog because I'll be online and answering questions about your wip or whatever you want to talk about from 9-4 EST (that's 6-1 PST).

No pressure, no commitment, just an offer. Maybe you can find some books you might want, maybe you won't. Maybe you'll find someone you really connect with style-wise. It's worth a shot. Lots of other people will be online too, sort of like a writing open house.

- Writing Online by Sean Platt
- How to Write for Kindle: A Non-Fiction Book in 72-Hours or Less by Nancy Hendrickson
- Writing Habit Mastery by S.J. Scott
- 77 Ways to Find New Readers for Your Self Published Book by Laura Pepper Wu
- Your First 1000 Copies by Tim Grahl
- Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson
- 1,000 Creative Writing Prompts, Volume 2 by Bryan Cohen and Jeremiah Jones
- Author Publicity Pack by Heather Hart and Shelley Hitz
- The Writer's Tune-Up Manual by Craig Hart
- Practical Emotional Structure by Jodi Henley
- The Easy Way to Write a Novel That Sells by Rob Parnell
- How Do I Decide? Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing by Rachelle Gardner
- How to Write Dialogue by Marcy Kennedy
- Fire Up Your Fiction by Jodie Renner
- Make Money Online, Volume 2 by Connie Brentford
- Writing Fight Scenes by Rayne Hall

You can find the event here.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

How to tell the difference between a character-driven story and a plotted story

Recently I got a question (which doesn't mean I don't have other questions, lol--just that I'm still trying to play catch-up and it's one hell of a flu season)

I struggle with plot driven vs character driven and what the difference is. Even when creating an outline I cannot tell which one it is. Any examples from popular books would help.

I don't read as many popular books as I should, so I'm going to use popular movies that have a plotted and character-driven version, because it's easier to see. And for that, let's talk about Rambo, one of my favorite series.

The first movie in the series (there are four) is First Blood, loosely based on a David Morrell book of the same name. Loosely based on the David Morrell book of the same name, it’s the psychological study of a Vietnam vet. In the movie, Rambo is a drifter. Everything that happens in First Blood builds on his backstory and who he became because of that backstory. When he heads up into the mountains and does his whole poncho-survivalist thing, it’s understandable because he was Special Forces. It’s something he was trained to do. When he refuses to leave town, it’s because he was a former prisoner of war and he was controlled for a long time, which means he refuses to let anyone control or confine him.

All Rambo's actions are based on who he is (a former Green Beret, ex-prisoner of war), what happened to him (he survived torture and confinement), what he became (a veteran with extreme post-traumatic stress disorder), and what’s happening to him (in the story) because of that.

Because he was a prisoner of the North Vietnamese he refused to leave town when told to get out which made him turn around and walk back in, which made the sheriff arrest him, which made the jailor try to give him a haircut and shave him with a straight razor which triggers Rambo’s PSTD which gets the story going.

While the first Rambo movie is character-driven, the later Rambo movies are plot-driven. Although Rambo is still at the center of each movie, he could easily be replaced by pretty much any action hero from Jean-Claude Van Damme to Jason Statham because the scriptwriters forgot the simple incident Morell based Rambo’s reactions on—Rambo was a POW. And because he was a POW, he had PSTD and control issues.
Rambo’s time in the POW camp was the start of his transformational arc. Everything that Rambo does—all his actions and reactions, circle back to Vietnam.

  • When the sheriff tells Rambo to leave town, Rambo refuses to go because he won’t be told what to do ever again.
  •  When the sheriff puts Rambo in jail (behind bars) it triggers Rambo’s post-traumatic stress syndrome.
  •  When Rambo’s jailors get ready to cut his hair, it makes him flashback to prison (his pertinent back story) and being tortured.
  •  Because he was Special Forces in Vietnam, he reacts to that trigger with violence and escapes into the wilderness

*A character-driven story is pushed by back story (and most of the time (although not always) has a transformational character arc).

*The external plot is silly-simple (they tried to force him to do things that went against his back story and he reacted--violently).


The Descendents--the hero had a indifferent relationship with his wife. Now that she's dying, he's trying to find out who she was, and reconnect with his daughters.

  • If he hadn't drifted away from his wife, she never would have had an affair
  • He never would have felt obligated to find his wife's lover (to allow him to say goodbye)
  • His wife's affair alienates their teenaged daughter because she thinks it's wrong that her mom is betraying her dad, which opens a line of communication between Matt and his daughter, which allows him to heal the rift between them.
Simple line of action: Matt needs to find his wife's lover so he can say goodbye before they pull the plug.

Just like in First Blood, there's a lot going on, but the two movies aren't pointed at anything. Rambo just wants to be left alone. He's not trying to do anything. In the same way the Descendents wasn't really about finding Elizabeth's lover. It's more about the bad choices you make in life, and making good choices.

There is no major goal. They're just stories about people. Sometimes the people are exciting and blow things up, and sometimes they just walk around with their kids.

Let's look at Rambo III. According to the 1990 Guinness book of records, Rambo 3 had the dubious distinction of being the most violent movie ever made with 221 acts of violence, 70 explosions, and over 108 characters killed on-screen. In it Colonel Trautman asks Rambo to help him supply the rebels in Afghanistan (at the time the Soviets were the bad guys). Rambo says no, Trautman goes by himself and is kidnapped, and Rambo takes down the entire Soviet army with minor help from the Afghan rebels in order to get him back. Who can forget that iconic screen shot of Rambo shooting down a Soviet helicopter with an explosive arrow, all that heart-thumping music and Rambo in his tank (and black wife-beater "with" headband!) surviving a direct collision with a helicopter?

Was there any sign of Rambo's PSTD or anti-authoritarian stance? No, because it doesn't matter. "Rambo" doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is getting Troutman back and blowing up as many things as possible. There's a solid goal (get Troutman back, destroy as many Soviets as possible), but the character needs to be flexible (adaptable?) to get the story from pt A (Rambo turning Troutman down because he wants to meditate in peace) to pt B (blowing up the Soviets and bagging 108 kills).

The story doesn't flow out of character and back story,  it flows "toward" the goal. The story is plotted without consideration for character.

Sometimes stories are a combination of character-driven and plotted (a lot of urban fantasies are like this, and so is romantic suspense, and some thrillers and mysteries).  Character-driven stories can push a strong plot if the story events and goal also flow out of the character's back story.

In Die Hard, John McClane is estranged from his wife, Holly and goes to the Nakatomi Christmas party (where he hopes they'll get together again). Unfortunately terrorists take over the building, and McClane has to take them down in order to get his wife back. Fortunately, he's got some great back story.

The plot is still simple (get his wife back alive), but it's amped up with lots of explosions, great villains and amazing stunts. You can dress it up or down, but the difference between Die Hard and Rambo III is simply motivation.

By Rambo III are Trautman and Rambo friends? In First Blood, Trautman says he trained Rambo, in Rambo 2 he tells Rambo to go back to Vietnam. By number 3, is Rambo at the point where he'd blow up the Soviet army to get Trautman back?

Yeah, right.

In Die Hard, it's hard to ignore the fact that McClane wants Holly back. He flew (despite hating planes) cross country, and he's willing to suffer a posh, snarky Christmas party to be with her. He loves Holly and he has motivation with a capital "M". He has a goal (get Holly out of there), his back story supports his motivation, and the story events work for who he is and showcase his strengths and weaknesses.

so how can you tell what's what?

If your character's motivation to get through the story or do whatever you want him to do flows out of who he is (in back story), then most likely it's character-driven. If you think you're going to need a little less input from the peanut galley to get your character from beginning to end, it's most likely plotted. And I'd suggest either thinning your character out a little so he can fit into the story, or finding a story that fits the character.